We don't go to the movies as often in New York as we did in Austin for one simple reason: There isn't an Alamo Drafthouse here. It's strange, because I think one would go over really well. But like competent country-western bands playing in bars or nachos that are assuredly not made with baked beans, we've learned to let go with a smile in our hearts, because New York otherwise has so much on offer. What's funny is that one thing that New York does have that Austin doesn't have for most---a solid 20-30 minute walk home in which to hash out the movie---was something we did have because we just so happened to live pretty close to the Drafthouse when we lived in Austin. The measure of a really intriguing movie was that this walk home didn't feel like enough to hash out the finer points of the film. I mention this, because it took us about 30 minutes to walk home from "Inception" Friday night, and we spent most of that walking talking about the Christopher Nolan movie we'd wished we'd seen.
Don't get me wrong; "Inception" was enjoyable, even though you could knock half an hour off to make a more interesting, tighter film. But Nolan's trademark ability to leave the audience truly wondering as they leave wasn't in evidence, and was instead replaced with featherlight hints. The ending with the top was supposed to be intriguing, but there was really no emotional weight. The question, "Are you or are you not still in a dream?" left me saying, "Who gives a shit?" Contrast that to "Memento" or "The Prestige", where the central questions you're left with at the end of the film are truly unresolvable and haunting.
In this movie, there was never a moment of real doubt that the main character's struggle with Imaginary Wife was about him accepting his loss and moving on with his life, and since we get a big---admittedly moving---speech that resolves that question, all the oomph of the ending was taken out. On the walk home, I decided that this could have easily been rewritten to make it more ambiguous and haunting. Start with the question of whether or not Mal was right, something that Cobb basically rejects out of hand throughout the movie and, in the end, is shown to have been wrong about. If Mal was right, then when she threw herself off that building, she would have woken up to find her husband sleeping there. Is there any doubt that she would have gone back into his dreams to get him? You could build a movie around this question---is the Mal he's seeing flitting around real Mal or projection Mal? To raise the stakes, have projection Mal trying to kill Cobb (instead of making questionable decisions like merely wreaking havoc for no reason), driving him and the audience to wonder if his subconscious is attacking him out of guilt or if she's an actual person trying to get her stubborn husband back. This plot would not have to interfere with the MacGuffin action plot about putting an idea in the businessman's head.
With this, you can create an ending with way more emotional impact than the one we got. Because Cobb never really makes a decision, because he never really doubts the existence he's in. But what if that wasn't true? What if he spent the whole movie doubting and fighting Mal while not knowing if she was real or not? What if, at the end, he decides that he can never really know, so he decides on the world he knows with the kids but without Mal and not on a potential world with both Mal and the kids? Instead of a final shot where we're like, "Ooooooh, what if he's still in a dream?" because he's spinning the top, we instead have a final shot of him locking the top in a safe (another image used throughout the movie) to symbolize his resolution to pick this reality, leaving the audience to wonder, "What if his choice was the wrong one?" Obviously, there would have to be some conversation with Mal that gets this resolved, one where the audience is left to wonder if her acceptance of his choice is simply a projection of his imagination, or his actual wife deciding to give up the fight for her husband and move on. You could even start the flick off, for maximum pretentiousness, with the quote from Albert Camus: "There is but one truly serious philosophical problem and that is suicide."
I realize that you can argue that this choice is in fact made, but it's made in a marginal way where the audience is left with no doubt, and Mal is left with no chance to make a decision of her own (because we're to assume she's dead---which couldn't be true if this is a dream world!). In fact, the struggle between husband and wife has no emotional pull, because it's not a struggle between two people, but just a man coming to grips with his grief. There's no suspense and no intrigue. Compare that with "The Prestige", where the struggle between the two main characters is truly epic. Nolan is very good at creating competitive relationships between men in his movies---that's what really matters in "The Dark Knight"---but pulls away from struggles between men and women. Is he afraid to paint female characters as having real emotional power? It seems strange, because he has a lot of feminist instincts otherwise. Consider, for instance, how Ellen Page's character never has to go through the "by golly she's a lady!" ropes. It's never mentioned, never assumed unusual, and she's not saddled with a love interest to excuse her presence to nervous ninnies. But I fear his intentions to not talk down to or objectify his female characters crashes into a fundamental fear of writing female characters, since they are so few and far between, and the real struggles are often between men. The MacGuffin storyline, for instance, was about the projection of the dying father, but the struggle between father and son actually provoked suspense. Who would win? We never get this between Mal and Cobb; their resolution is easy to figure out the second we know what the struggle is. At the end, Cobb even articulates it---she's easy to conquer, because she's not even real. Leonardo di Caprio is a great actor, and moved me when he made this observation. But upon reflection, I find it annoying.
Did you see the movie? What did you think?