Lots of people will hate this film, and some will love it.
The bottom line is, if you enjoy, respect, or feel that you understand the work of William S. Burroughs, you should see this film. If you don't know what I am talking about, you should probably not see this film.
The following pedantic and potentially inflammatory review, like this film, pulls no punches and makes no apologies for itself. Read on if you dare.
If any three of the following conditions apply see Naked Lunch:
1. ...know what the term "visual metaphor" means.
2. ...are a Burroughs, Kerouac or Ginsburg fan.
2a. ...are not a fan, but know and respect Burroughs, Kerouac or Ginsburg
3. ...can't see how the book Naked Lunch could make a good film.
4. ... believe that Peter Weller is an underrated actor.
5. ...thought any of the following films were 'lightweight': Lost Highway, Mulholland Drive, Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me, The Last Wave, Heavenly Creatures, Dead Ringers.
6. ...have lived in the New York area for 15 or more years.
7. ...know the relationship between improvisational jazz, poetry, and modern art.
8. ...think you understand what Andy Warhol was trying to do.
9. ... are curious about what the process of writing a novel is like.
10. ...spend a lot of time arguing with inanimate objects.
11. ...without knowing the content of this film, can see a potential relationship between sexual ambivalence, guilt, paranoia, addiction, typewriters and over-sized talking insects.
You should NOT see this film if any of the following apply:
1. ...consider homosexual love to be evil, wrong, and something you can not sympathize with or understand.
2. ...use the phrase "he's on drugs" to explain behavior and ideas that do not make sense to you.
3. ...do not like or respect Burroughs, Kerouac or Ginsburg, and you know who they are.
4. have a concept of challenging literature as the latest John Irving novel (no offense to Mr Irving intended - he's easily as great as Burroughs, just sort of mainstream and pop).
5. ..like films which you can walk away from easily.
6. ...don't want to see any film which requires a second viewing to feel as if you've really got any of it.
7. ...view films strictly as a form of entertainment.
8. ...without knowing the content of this film, you can not imagine a potential relationship between sexual ambivalence, guilt, paranoia, addiction, typewriters and over-sized talking insects.
9. ...don't care to understand most of the following review.
10. ...consider ambiguity and loose ends in a film to be "plot holes" and consider any film which has them to be 'flawed'.
William S. Burroughs is widely regarded as one of America's greatest writers of fiction. A friend and mentor to Jack Kerouac and Alan Ginsburg, Burroughs helped to create the genres of 'beat' - American literary high modernism, and/or post-modernism. He provides highly tactile ironic, seductively repulsive descriptions of the everyday which are at once accurate, fragmented and surreal - in other words - Burroughs recreates the feeling and mood of his time and his experience with hermeneutic precision.
Cronenberg's Naked Lunch is an amalgamation of Cronenberg's interpretation and experience of reading Burroughs, Burroughs own life, and Burrough's legendary novel, Naked Lunch. There are six or more plots operating in six or more interacting layers throughout the film, and the action centers exclusively on Burrough's alter-ego, Bill Lee, as he attempts to discover the relationships between all of these plots. The plots I identify (and an interested viewer will generally be able to identify many more that this) are Burrough's relationship with Joan, Lee's relationship with Joan, Lee's drug addiction, Burrough's drug addiction, Lee's investigations into the secret society of drug trafficking at the edge of the world in Interzone, Burrough's struggle to create/discover himself. However, the theme of the film is more an issue of the Lee/Burroughs character trying and, in the end, failing, to make sense of the connections between these plots.
It is a very self-conscious, personal, brilliantly developed and visually intense film. Yet, despite its self-exposure and openness, the film maintains a certain distance from its audience, as if it has taken on the life given it by Cronenberg and Burroughs and established its own unique personality, which will keep its audience at a certain distance. To really appreciate this, you must watch the film at least a few times.
It is especially significant that Burroughs gave his approval for this project. Burroughs' writing is intensely personal and artistic, and his willingness to allow Cronenberg to position himself and his experience of Burrough's work within the film, and to decenter Naked Lunch is as powerful a testimony to Burrough's own integrity as an artist as it is to Cronenberg's vision.
Most of the people who acted in this film really wanted to be involved in it and it shows. Ian Holm and Roy Scheider are always great. Peter Weller, a big Burroughs fan and a severely underrated actor gives what may be the performance of his lifetime, Judy Davis and Julian Sands are both perfectly cast and powerful in their roles.
This films imagery is necessarily disturbing, disorienting, and, at times, quite comic. Very much in keeping with the feel of Burrough's work.
See it. You don't have to like it to respect it.