Although Christopher Nolan's movies are always technically impressive (audio notwithstanding), people often discuss how it is sometimes difficult to connect to the characters on an emotional level because we're too busy trying to figure out what exactly is going on, or sometimes the movie is an exhausting watch due to how bleak the tone is.
"The Dark Knight Rises" might be one of the best examples of the latter situation, as it's basically 2 hours and 45 minutes of everyone having a bad time. Marvel movies might have a problem with putting too many quips in their stories, but Nolan helped start the DC trend of veering way too far in the gritty direction.
But for two of Nolan's most serious movies, "Memento" and "Insomnia," Nolan doesn't consider them to be humorless at all. "I think both of them are quite funny, maybe no one else agrees," Nolan said in a 2002 interview with Movie Web. Although he considers them both to be "darkly serious," he still noted that "they get a lot of laughter at screenings."
This might sound like a weird thing for Nolan to say. After all, "Memento" was an R-rated thriller about a guy with memory loss trying to hunt down the guy who sexually assaulted and murdered his wife, which isn't a premise suited for any particularly funny material. But as it turns out, there can be a lot of humor to mine from characters with short-term memory loss — just ask Dory from "Finding Nemo." In fact, despite being perhaps the darkest and rawest film of Nolan's career, "Memento" might also be the funniest.
Maybe one of the funniest little moments in "Memento" comes halfway through, where we come across Leonard (Guy Pearce) driving down a road, not really sure where he's going. The movie runs in reverse order, so every scene starts with Leonard just as confused as we are. He starts to piece together that the car behind him is following him, so he pulls over to try to talk things out. The car pulls up next to him, Leonard expresses confusion through body language, and then the guy pulls out a gun and points it at him. Instead of showing us Leonard's reaction, the movie skips over it. When the camera cuts to him, he's already processed the situation and is stepping on the gas to escape.
It's a fun visual gag, made funnier when you consider how absurd this looks from the chaser's perspective, who has no idea that Leonard has short-term memory loss. It's also funny in how it shows us how much Leonard's gotten used to his current life; he knows that nothing will ever make immediate sense, so when confusing things happen he just kind of rolls with it. It's an attitude that leads to another funny moment later on when he's in another chase scene. "What am I doing?" says Leonard via voiceover. "Oh, I'm chasing this guy … No, he's chasing me."
Who among us has not walked into the other room to get something, only to realize we've forgotten what we came in to get? Well, Leonard experiences that sensation about a dozen times throughout the movie, except sometimes the thing he forgets is that someone's trying to murder him right this second.
Embracing The Dramatic Irony
Beyond the understated humor of watching this poor man clumsily barge his way through life-threatening situations, "Memento" also gets a lot funnier on re-watch. Once you know the chronological order of events, nearly every conversation Leonard has with a recurring character is now layered with double meanings.
Some of those double meanings are dark — like seeing all the hints this time around that Natalie (Carrie-Anne Moss) is not quite the ally we think she is — but half the time they're hilarious. There's a scene where Leonard finds a beaten-up guy tied up in his closet and he asks him with concern, "Who did this to you?" which is a lot funnier once you've actually seen the whole story of how Leonard beats this guy up and locks him up in his closet. The movie's filled with stuff like this, where the absurd stuff Leonard's doing becomes way crazier from an outside, chronological perspective.
Christopher Nolan has never gotten as dark as he has in "Memento," which ends on an awfully cynical note and thoroughly earns its R-rating the whole way through. But on the other hand, he's never been as funny either. Even "The Dark Knight," which let Heath Ledger get plenty of zingers in as the Joker, never managed to be as funny as a motel owner sheepishly admitting to Leonard that he tried to charge him for extra rooms without him noticing.
Although his upcoming film "Oppenheimer" doesn't exactly seem like a laugh riot either, we hope Nolan will return to his earlier approach of slipping in more humor into his stories, no matter how dark the subject matter gets.
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