This review by film critic Janet Maslin originally appeared in the December 27, 1991, edition of the New York Times, and appears by permission of the author.
Naked Lunch, adapted by the dauntless David Cronenberg from William S. Burroughs’s 1959 landmark novel, represents a remarkable meeting of the minds. It’s hard to imagine another filmmaker who could delve so deeply into the monstrousness of Mr. Burroughs’s vision, in the end coming up with a bona fide monster movie of his own. Yet while Mr. Cronenberg’s ingenious approach to his material matches Mr. Burroughs’s flair for the grotesque, it also shares the author’s perfect nonchalance and his ice-cold wit. Seldom has a filmmaker offered his audience a more debonair invitation to go to hell.
The director of The Fly, Dead Ringers, and Scanners will not disappoint viewers who appreciate his devilish ingenuity. Instead of attempting the impossible task of adapting Naked Lunch literally, Mr. Cronenberg has treated the disjointed, hallucinatory book as a secondary source. Concentrating instead on Mr. Burroughs himself, the drug experience that colors his writing, and the agonies of the creative process, Mr. Cronenberg also devises purely metaphorical versions of the author’s wild and violent sexual scenarios. The result, by turns bracing, brilliant, and vile, is a screen style as audacious as Mr. Burroughs’s is on the page.
Naked Lunch makes an instantaneous break with conventional reality in its opening moments and never looks back. Centering on the adventures of Bill Lee, played by Peter Weller as a droll, deadpan evocation of the author (Lee was the maiden name of Mr. Burroughs’s mother, and William Lee his pseudonym), the film begins with smallish bugs. Then it moves on to ever more huge, horrible, and intelligent ones. Bill works in New York City as an exterminator and sees even that as a metaphor. “Exterminate all rational thought—that is the conclusion I have come to,” he says.
In addition to viewing his job in philosophical terms, Bill has also used it as an excuse to ingest narcotic bug powder, to which both he and his wife, Joan (Judy Davis), have become addicted. Ms. Davis, who is wonderfully dry and unflappable in two different bizarre incarnations, at first turns up barely long enough to inject bug powder intravenously and conduct a lazy affair with one of Bill’s friends. “Hank and I, we’re just bored,” she tells Bill. “It wasn’t serious.”
This is enough to raise Bill’s suspicions that Joan is a secret agent for an enemy spy ring, especially after a large talking beetle befriends Bill and drops that hint. Joan must be eliminated, the beetle insists, speaking from an orifice that recalls Mr. Burroughs’s taste for the playfully obscene, and talking in the lively, Burroughs-like idiom of Mr. Cronenberg’s inventive screenplay. “It must be done this week,” the insect says, “and it must be done real tasty.”
So Bill and Joan perform their “William Tell act,” just as Mr. Burroughs and his wife, Joan Vollmer Burroughs, did one drunken evening in Mexico City in 1951. As Bill shoots and kills Joan, the film makes one of its many allusions to the real events of Mr. Burroughs’s life. Soon afterward, he either physically or psychically flees New York for Interzone, a Tangier-like exotic setting in which the film’s nightmarishness escalates to new levels (although Naked Lunch is so thoroughly hallucinatory that it’s difficult to know exactly where its characters are, literally or figuratively). In Interzone, the suffering gets worse and the bugs get bigger as Bill attempts to write what will be Naked Lunch, the novel.
On-screen, Naked Lunch recalls both The Sheltering Sky and Barton Fink in its respective evocations of the life of the literary exile and the torment of trying to write. Mr. Cronenberg’s hideously clever contribution in the latter realm is the insect-cum-typewriter that supposedly assists Bill in his efforts but clearly has a mind of its own. Both the writing bug and the Mugwump, a man-size and rather soigné strain of monster, are capable of registering their approval by oozing viscous, intoxicating substances from various parts of their anatomies. “I’d like you to meet a friend of mine,” Bill is told upon encountering his first cigarette-smoking Mugwump on a barstool in Interzone. “He specializes in sexual ambivalence.”
These elements, plus a lot of attention to the addictive powers of the black meat of the giant Brazilian centipede, ensure that Mr. Cronenberg’s version of Naked Lunch is no more suitable to the fainthearted than Mr. Burroughs’s was. And the film, while very different from the book, is every bit as impenetrable in its own way. By the time it reaches a repellent fever pitch, with one character literally tearing its body open to reveal someone of a different sex inside (a simple yet extravagantly weird evocation of the author’s thoughts on sexual identity), Naked Lunch has become too stomach-turning and gone too far over the top to regain its initial aplomb. Yet for the most part, this is a coolly riveting film and even a darkly entertaining one, at least for audiences with steel nerves, a predisposition toward Mr. Burroughs, and a willingness to meet Mr. Cronenberg halfway.
The gaunt, unsmiling Mr. Weller looks exactly right and brings a perfect offhandedness to his disarming dialogue. (“You’re patronizing me, boys, but I don’t mind, ’cause you’re so sweet to me too,” he tells the film’s Jack Kerouac and Allen Ginsberg stand-ins.) And Ms. Davis is chillingly good as both Joan Lee and Joan Frost, a writer Bill meets with her husband in Interzone; between this and her work as the helpmate of the William Faulkner character in Barton Fink, Ms. Davis surely qualifies as the tortured writer’s Muse of the Year. Also roaming through Naked Lunch are Roy Scheider as the demented Dr. Benway, an odd fixture of the pharmacological strain in Mr. Burroughs’s writing; Ian Holm as a fellow writer with a grasp of the typewriter-bug’s habits; and Julian Sands as a debauched Interzone playboy.
“Stay until you finish the book, but then come back to us,” Bill’s friends say about his sojourn in Interzone. But if the terror so slyly and sickeningly rendered in Naked Lunch is representative, it’s a miracle that artists ever survive the creative process to come home.