The “MacGuffin,” Hitchcock said, is the mysterious reason that sets the action in motion. Why, say, is Cary Grant’s character being chased in “North by Northwest”? Hitchcock’s point is that the MacGuffin doesn’t matter to the audience. The screen time spent explaining it should be minimal. The MacGuffin is boring.
“Inception” is an Ocean’s 11- type caper, where the gang of thieves led by Dom Cobb (Leonardo DiCaprio) steal and/or implant secrets in the minds of corporate big shots. The metaphysical mumbo gumbo about mental-invasion techniques is the movie’s MacGuffin. Nolan uses reams of dialogue explaining this stuff.
When the action finally gets going about halfway through the 2-hour-and-30-minute film, it ends up resembling a spaced-out James Bond adventure, featuring shoot-outs, car chases, arctic snow slugfests, all on multiple subconscious levels inside the cranium of mega-rich guy Robert Fischer, Jr. (Cillian Murphy). There’s also a fistfight around a gravityless hallway that looks like the room where Fred Astaire danced on the walls and ceiling.
A miscast Ellen Page (“Juno”) is on hand as fledging “mind architect” Ariadne to provide a sounding board for Cobb’s incessant lecturing. However, she keys in to her mentor’s mental hang-ups about his suicide deceased wife, Mal (Marion Cotillard). His memory of her keeps slipping into the subconscious action sequences, messing up Cobb’s colleagues.
While the acting is competent, the real star here is editor Lee Smith, who has the unenviable task of making cinematic sense of Nolan’s Quantum Physics concepts. In fact, it would take a darned good psychiatrist to figure out this messed up MacGuffin. Nolan appears to be mixing the mind-manipulation of his “Memento” and the wild ride of “The Dark Night.” He’d do better to follow Hitchcock’s advice and shrink the shrink talk.