David Cronenberg's Naked Lunch is not William Burroughs's "Naked Lunch." It couldn't be. Rather, it's Cronenberg's fantasia about how that infernal underground classic got written: it's a homage to Burroughs himself Peter Weller's brilliantly deadpan presence as the hero, Bill Lee, mimics the author's own gaunt, laconic persona. He's a writer/ junkie/bug exterminator with a motto: "Exterminate all rational thought."
Cronenberg happily obliges. This cool, hallucinatory meditation on addiction, writing, sexual ambivalence, mind control and bugs is designed to test the tolerance, and sometimes the stomach, of the toughest audience. But "Naked Lunch" is also, in the darkest sense, a comedy. It's important to remember that Burroughs's nightmare vision was delivered in the droll, tough-guy parlance of a stand-up comedian working a room in Club Hell. A word to the wise guy: if this movie doesn't make you chuckle, you're in for a very long night.
Ostensibly set in New York City in 1953, the movie in fact takes place inside the mind of Bill Lee, a man who tends to have visions of giant bugs that talk through their anuses. The first such bug tells Bill that his wife, Joan (Judy Davis)-who's strung out on bug powder-is a secret agent from Interzone. "You must kill her," says the bug. And he does, just the way Burroughs killed his real wife, in a shooting accident while playing a William Tell party routine. Shortly thereafter, Bill flees to Interzone itself, which resembles Tangier (where Burroughs wrote "Naked Lunch") but is more profitably understood as a drug-induced state of mind. His ticket to Interzone is a syringe, and its inhabitants range from a literary couple obviously modeled on Paul and Jane Bowles (played by Ian Holm and Judy Davis again) to Mugwumps, giant insects that drink cocktails and secrete juices from their orifices.
The real subject of the movie is the mystery of the creative process. Bill is writing for his life. He believes himself a secret agent filing reports to his masters while "posing" as a homosexual ("the best cover a secret agent can have," advises his talking typewriter, which turns into a bug and often does his writing for him). In the elaborate metaphor/metamorphosis Cronenberg sets out, bugs, drugs and typewriters become interchangeable. Are the drugs doing the writing, or the man?
Anyone familiar with Cronenberg's work--"The Fly," "Dead Ringers"--will recognize the themes of psychic invasion, biological transformation and decomposing personalities, not to mention the slimy, sexualized monsters. What "Naked Lunch" jettisons are the narrative signposts that usually anchor Cronenberg's films. Without them, the movie engrosses or bores on the strength of each sequence, and not all of it fascinates equally. A fever dream told in a chilly, controlled style, it is irrational in a matter-of-fact, deliberate way. Obviously this is not everybody's cup of weird tea: you must have a taste for the esthetics of disgust. For those up to the dare, it's one clammily compelling movie.