Led inside a shabby-sinister downtown office by a couple of anonymous cops, Bill Lee (Peter Weller), a professional bug exterminator who dresses like a ’50s private eye, peers out from beneath his brown fedora and confronts the first of many reality-shattering visions: a two-foot-long beetle. As he watches, the monster slithers out of its box, spreads its waxy brown wings, and reveals a huge, red, talking orifice that proceeds to snap out orders. Lee, it’s safe to say, has never encountered one of these before, yet his face remains cool, arch, impassive — a mask of stoic denial. Regardless of how weird things get, he never blinks an eye.

Written and directed by the bodily-horror fetishist David Cronenberg (The Fly, Dead Ringers), who has freely adapted William S. Burroughs’ famously subversive 1959 collage novel — a scabrous fantasia of murder, technological doom, and violent homosexual release in the face of bureaucratic ”control” — Naked Lunch may be the strangest concoction ever released by a major studio, yet it isn’t at all hard to watch. The movie has a light, cheeky, is-this-for-real-or-what? quality that keeps you hanging on every surreal, macabre twist.

Having accidentally killed his wife (Judy Davis) in a game of William Tell, Lee journeys to the mysterious Third World region of Interzone, a kind of Casablanca on peyote. There he meets spies and gangsters and kinky expatriates, encounters semen-gushing creatures known as ”mugwumps” (they look like giant French ticklers), watches his typewriter turn into a beetle, watches it do battle with another beetle-typewriter — and undergoes all of these disarming experiences in a languid, drug-induced haze that makes it impossible to draw the line between what’s happening inside and outside his head.

In the novel, Burroughs’ voice was shot through with rage, disgust, and bilious lust. Cronenberg, a far more rational talent, plays down the hysteria-pitched homoeroticism and turns Naked Lunch into a poky, absurdist comedy of dehumanization — the story of a man quietly watching his own sanity dribble away. The movie suggests that the suppressed agony of killing his wife has turned Lee into a writer. He has to keep rechanneling his pain into paranoid visions; he literally can’t get the bugs out of his system.

Peter Weller, the poker-faced star of RoboCop, greets all of the hallucinogenic weirdness with a doleful, matter-of-fact deadpan that grows more likable as the movie goes on. The actor’s steely robostare has never been more compelling. By the end, he has turned Burroughs’ stone-cold protagonist — a man with no feelings — into a mordantly touching hero. Naked Lunch is a folly, but a surprisingly resonant and amusing one. From first shot to last, it has the courage of its own dementia. B+

Naked Lunch
  • Movie
  • 115 minutes