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Cancelled Trip

Richard Linklater tries awkwardly to just say no in A Scanner Darkly.

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Many of us know someone who emerged from a youth of experimenting with mood-altering substances to become staunchly, perhaps militantly, opposed to such behavior. We remember him as the life of the party and'even as we tell ourselves that this friend is probably going to live a longer, more productive life now that he’s clean'secretly we probably feel the same way George W. Bush’s college pals must feel: Why did the guy who used to be so much fun have to turn into such a hectoring dork?

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It’s hard not to feel that sense of mourning in microcosm watching Richard Linklater’s adaptation of Philip K. Dick’s 1977 novel A Scanner Darkly. While Linklater once said in a 2001 interview with IndieWire that he’s “not really a drug guy,” he certainly built his career on the kind of rambling, tripped-out discourse that drove Slacker and Waking Life. Indeed, what little plot there was in his 1993 paean to the 1970s Dazed and Confused is built around the heroic decision of his high school football-star protagonist not to give up smoking pot.

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Yet here he is in 2006, opening a film with a character going through a drug-induced psychotic episode in which he imagines bugs emerging from his skin. And the character is played by none other than Rory Cochrane, who memorably portrayed Dazed and Confused’s blissed-out stoner Slater. “This is Slater at his 20-year reunion,” Linklater seems to be saying. “Not such a barrel of laughs now, is he?nn

Fine, mock if you will the relevance of such subtext, but take a look at the way Linklater casts his supporting roles. There’s Robert “Rehab on His Speed-Dial” Downey Jr. as motor-mouthed addict Barris. And over there on the couch is hemp cheerleader Woody Harrelson as Luckman, yet another lost soul. One is a coincidence, two is dumb luck, but three is what these guys would call a conspiracy.

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True, A Scanner Darkly isn’t primarily about those characters. It’s about a guy who’s living a double life as both an undercover Orange County narcotics cop code-named Fred and as a junkie named Robert Arctor (Keanu Reeves) who hangs with the aforementioned losers, chain-popping a designer hallucinogenic called Substance D. He’s trying to find the supplier of his dealer/girlfriend Donna (Winona Ryder), before he loses his mind in the process.

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Because A Scanner Darkly is a Philip K. Dick creation, it wrestles with questions of am-I-really-what-I-think-I-am identity familiar to anyone who has seen Blade Runner or Total Recall. A nifty creation called a “scramble suit” turns Fred/Arctor into a composite of a million different physical characteristics while he’s in the office, an effective physical manifestation of his disintegrating mental state. It’s rendered, as is the entire film, as part of the same computer-rotoscoped animation that Linklater employed on Waking Life, with animator Bob Sabiston turning all the actors into strangely discolored creatures who seem to float ever so slightly above the world around them. The style is more than a gimmick; it’s a hypnotic visual entry point for an unsettling near future.

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Yet it’s also unsettling watching Linklater'who has always seemed most comfortable just letting his characters chatter'try to wrestle this material into a message. Like Dick, Linklater seems to want us to see individual drug casualties as tragic victims rather than criminals. The film sets up a monolithic system that benefits both from creating addicts and from curing them, and a government that uses the excuse of a perpetual War on Drugs to justify the erosion of individual liberties. Yet he’s also essentially identifying users as part of the problem'the customer without whom neither The Corporation nor The Government has power. Whenever he appears to be warning us about The Man in all his many Man-ifestations, Linklater gets so grim-faced and serious that he might as well be The Man himself.

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And it’s a damned shame, because A Scanner Darkly is kind of a blast when it’s just freestyling. The best moments find Downey and Harrelson hilariously riffing on everything from crooked bicycle salesmen to the niceties of assisting a choking victim. Linklater is trying so hard to make his film a relevant commentary on contemporary society that he doesn’t even seem to notice that the guys who do the drugs are the ones you’d actually want to spend time with. A Scanner Darkly feels like a bad artistic fit'a “just say no” lesson from a guy who still benefits from the entertainment value of saying yes.

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A SCANNER DARKLY
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nnKeanu Reeves
nnWinona Ryder
nnRobert Downey Jr.
nnRated R

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