- No one blows finer animated smoke rings than Robert Downey Jr.
Kimball's Twin Peak
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?
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. Linklater built his career on the kind of rambling, tripped-out discourse that drove Slacker and Waking Life, not to mention Dazed and Confused.
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," Link-later seems to be saying. "Not such a barrel of laughs now, is he?"
Then there's Robert "Rehab on His Speed-Dial" Downey Jr. as motor-mouthed addict Barris. And 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.
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.
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.
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. And 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.
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 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.