Oh, it is tempting to respond to a film about dreams within dreams within dreams within dreams with something cheeky like a review inside a review inside a review inside a review, but let's keep it simple: Christopher Nolan's Inception is as exhilarating as any movie we'll see this summer—and twice as exhausting. Rarely has a mainstream release provided so little release. It is 148 minutes of headlong velocity and unremitting severity—a basso profundo note held for well over two hours. It has to be: One wink from the director would be a finger snap yanking the audience out of a hypnotic state. So it feels like walking underwater, holding your breath, being strangled, unable to move while something malefic bears down on you: all the stuff of nightmares. When it ended, I wanted to bolt upright, screaming.

The movie begins four dream layers deep—or is it five?—and takes 30 minutes to scramble to the surface before plunging down again. Its conceit, the logistics of which take a little while to grasp, is that Leonardo DiCaprio leads a crack team of subconscious saboteurs: They can extract your secrets while you snooze, and for the first time they are trying to plant an idea in somebody's head. It's a perilous business, even with good sedatives, because inside dreams it is easy to forget what is real and what's imagined. Guns can't kill you, but you might forget when and if you're supposed to wake up. The brain is a big place. It's easy to get lost in there.

This ontological rabbit-chasing calls up memories of The Matrix by way of Being John Malkovich, but really every movie is a dreamscape, a boxed alternate actuality in which to get lost. "The chance to build cathedrals, entire cities," DiCaprio rhapsodizes, "things that couldn't exist in the real world." This is catnip to Nolan, who since the early days of Following and Memento has delighted in puzzles and sleight of hand, and it is also dangerous territory for a director whose grasp of linear continuity has not always been sure. (This is one of my continued objections to Nolan's The Dark Knight: It is impossible to say how characters get from one place to another.) But with Inception, he and editor Lee Smith have superbly choreographed a high-wire juggling act, with cinematographer Wally Pfister cranking the camera at different speeds depending on the stratum of the dream. The movie is confusing only when it wants to be.

Inception's visuals are often astounding—borrowing from M.C. Escher and that British Tango commercial with the bouncing, exploding fruit—but the narrative complexity tends to overwhelm the actors. As in Martin Scorsese's Shutter Island, DiCaprio is asked to play strained and anguished, trying to tamp down madness. Lately, directors only love Leo for his mind—or at least his willingness to play tormented. Among a large cast that includes Ellen Page, Marion Cotillard and Ken Watanabe, the sole performer who seems at ease is Joseph Gordon-Levitt, who also gets the movie's best act of physical grace, running along walls and ceilings in a scene that recalls his Saturday Night Live rendition of Singin' in the Rain's "Make 'Em Laugh."

But the one thing that Inception will not make anybody do is laugh. For a movie with several zero-gravity sequences, it is burdened with very heavy gravity. (It's also disappointingly square, a series of gorgeous construction sites: There's no Freudian thicket here, or even Waking Life's wavy gravy.) Nolan is peerless for elegant trompe l'oeil splendor, but he remains stuck in a rigid, self-imposed angst that feels stifling; I get the feeling that he wants to punish us for escaping into the fantasy worlds he creates. This is a picture that contains, as a recurring motif, laying your head down on railroad tracks and waiting for the train. "Any minute you might bring a freight train crashing through the wall," Page accuses DiCaprio, and it's to Nolan's credit that Inception relentlessly feels like it might bring anything crashing in. Anything but one: happiness.



rated PG-13, opens Friday at Broadway, Cedar Hills, Clackamas, Eastport, Cinema 99, CineMagic, Bridgeport, Cinetopia, City Center, Cornelius, Division, Hilltop, Lake Twin, Lloyd Center, Lloyd Mall, Movies on TV, Oak Grove, Pioneer Place, Roseway, Sandy, Sherwood, St Johns Twin Cinema-Pub, Tigard and Wilsonville.