Naked Lunch (1991) - Rotten Tomatoes

Naked Lunch (1991)




Critic Consensus: No consensus yet.

Movie Info

This cinematic/literary hybrid fuses motifs from Beat writer William S. Burroughs's novel of the same name with elements of the author's biography and plenty of the cerebral alienation and biomorphic special effects fans of creepy cult director David Cronenberg have come to expect. Bill Lee (Peter Weller) wants to write, but he exterminates bugs to pay the bills. His wife, Joan (Judy Davis), becomes addicted to Bill's bug powder dust, and soon he joins her in a world of unorthodox hallucinogens; he visits the kindly yet sinister Dr. Benway (Roy Scheider) and walks away with his first dose of the black meat -- a narcotic made from the flesh of the giant aquatic Brazilian centipede. Soon, monstrous beetles are whispering conspiracy theories in Bill's ears and his nebbish writer friends Hank (Nicholas Campbell) and Martin (Michael Zelniker) are sleeping with Joan under his nose. When a party trick involving a liquor glass and a gun goes awry, killing Joan, Bill flees to Interzone, a Mediterranean city full of talking insectoid typewriters, double agents, offbeat aesthetes, and plots within plots. As he navigates this paranoid landscape, Bill begins ingesting another drug called mugwump jism and writes fragments that Hank and Martin soon assemble into a novel under the title Naked Lunch. As beat literature aficionados know, Interzone is based on Tangiers -- the city where Burroughs wrote Naked Lunch. The incident in the film in which Hank and Martin appropriate Bill's writing and have it published closely approximates the real-life circumstances of the novel's publication, although it was Allen Ginsberg and Jack Kerouac who helped out the real-life Burroughs. The William Tell incident that kills Bill's wife is also drawn from the author's real life. "William Lee" is both Burroughs' literary stand-in and the name under which he published his first autobiographical novel Junky. Ian Holm, who plays Joan Frost's husband, Tom, would appear in Cronenberg's similarly experimental eXistenZ several years later.more
Rating: R (adult situations/language, nudity)
Genre: Drama, Horror, Special Interest
Directed By:
Written By: David Cronenberg
In Theaters:
On DVD: Nov 11, 2003
Twentieth Century Fox Home Entertainment


Peter Weller
as Bill Lee
Judy Davis
as Joan Frost/Joan Lee
Ian Holm
as Frost
Roy Scheider
as Dr. Benway
Julian Sands
as Yves Cloquet
Peter Boretski
as 2nd Exterminator/Cre...
Sean McCann
as O'Brien
Howard Jerome
as A.J. Cohen
Michael Caruana
as Pawnbroker
Kurt Reis
as 1st Exterminator
Justin Louis
as 3rd Exterminator
Julian Richings
as 4th Exterminator
Jim Yip
as The Chink
Claude Aflalo
as Forgeman
Laurent Hazout
as Interzone Boy
Joseph Di Mambro
as Interzone Boy
Ornette Coleman
as The Ornette Coleman ...
Barre Phillips
as The Ornette Coleman ...
Show More Cast

News & Interviews for Naked Lunch

Critic Reviews for Naked Lunch

All Critics (44) | Top Critics (10)

Full Review… | September 7, 2011
Entertainment Weekly
Top Critic

A challenge if you're expecting a forward-moving plot but there's also more than enough pitch-black humor and straight-faced madness to lighten the mood, especially since Burroughs' strange lingo and vicious knack for language are intact.

Full Review… | April 23, 2013

If you've yet to purchase this incredible mind-trip involving bug powder, Brazilian centipedes, typewriters turning into giant insects, and bumping into Mugwumps in bars then the Blu-ray release is well worth your hard earned money.

Full Review… | April 12, 2013

...very nearly accomplishes the book's goal of "extinguishing all rational thought."

Full Review… | July 18, 2009

a respectful fugue on Burroughs' life and art ... It can be forgiven its acolyte's soul, for it is willing confront Burroughs' signature themes of addiction and control, and to meld them into ... an evocation of the master.

Full Review… | September 5, 2007
Arkansas Democrat-Gazette

This is the only film in which a typewriter beetle kills another typewriter beetle for being a secret agent. I mention it only because of the relevance of the written word, and typewriters %u2013 portable ones in this case %u2013 are the medium of the mes

Full Review… | May 5, 2007
Urban Cinefile

Audience Reviews for Naked Lunch


Directors Cat
Directors Cat

Super Reviewer


A surrealist film from the debonair auteur with a flair for the unsettling: David Cronenberg. Adapted from the William S. Burroughs novel and starring the eccentric yet keen Peter Weller, there is a fine line between utmost devotion and utter loathing for this film. For me it wasn't exactly the realism in the fantasies as seen through the eyes of a puritanical junkie, but how these obvious hallucinations interacted with the fantastical plot and the cavalcade of characters. The film follows an exterminator named William Lee who becomes addicted to the bug powder he peddles, and starts having intense and very specific kinds of hallucinations that drive him to start a life of crime, insanity, and commonly talking to his typewriter. These hallucinations tell him that he's a secret agent, his wife is against him, and homosexuality is a sin but is essential in the line of duty. Throughout the film visions of talking cockroaches/typewriters, and out of this world octopus hybrids are seamlessly strung along the plot to encompass the true absurdity of the situation. William Lee is an interesting character on his own, without the eccentricities that being a junkie include. He's cryptic with his words, and the strange speeches he spills forth are slightly egomaniacal and very isolating. He still interacts with the populous while hiding in plain sight, but when he is alone it's a depth of darkness that has to stay hidden and leads to more egotistical rants by William himself. The reason this film is so unbelievably amazing to me is that he recognizes that these hallucinations are just that in the beginning, the fact that a bug was communicating with him was something that led to his mind expelling the beast. Still, his problematic brain and his dire reality fuse to become a powder keg of insecurities. He knows these things are in his mind, but he's not sure if he's replacing them with actual human contact or it's an amalgamation of the drugs and what we all call reality. It's the fact that we only see a small glimpse of truth, once during the film, and the rest is some dream sequence with no true parameters except a timeline, which makes this genius. Yes, the bugs and parasitic creatures are unsettling and have the same monotone, warbling voices, but they're all part of the mindset of a very imbibed individual. The one thing that perturbed me was the psychotic ending with the strange yet logical reveal. It was too crazy, too convoluted and intricate to be a hallucination. While this film is not for everyone, it does give a great interpretation of a comparatively half-real life, powered by a strong drug of choice.

Spencer S.

Super Reviewer

Bill Lee: America is not a young land. It is old and dirty, evil. Before the settlers, before the Indians, the evil is there, waiting. 

"Exterminate all rational thought."

Beyond bizarre. So far beyond bizarre that it's hard to organize my thoughts about what I have just seen. All I know for sure is that in the end, I really didn't care for it.

For the first half hour or so, I was in love with the movie. I found the whole insect poison as a drug thing interesting. As the film went on, I started to fall out of love with it. Then altogether, I just lost interest in what I was seeing. The viewing experience is very much like getting high. At first your having fun, it is a great time; but you must come down, and I did... hard. 

To explain more than a few details of this plot would be tedious. So I'll just keep it to the bare minimums. An exterminator learns that his wife has been stealing his powder and has been shooting it up. His wife then turns him, an ex-junkie himself, onto the drug and soon is just as addicted as his wife. Then he starts hallucinating. Bugs are telling him secret information about all sorts of wild stuff. For awhile, the bug scenes are incredibly interesting, but after the third or fourth one, they become boring. 

I won't say that I hated this movie altogether. Maybe with another watch later in life, I'll enjoy the whole experience more. Cronenberg is just a weird director and that's what makes him so interesting. I can't say that I'm a huge fan of him, yet. I've only seen five of his movies and I have fallen completely in love with any of them. But one thing I will say is that the bizarreness of Cronenberg is much easier to watch and get through, than that of Lynch.

If this plot at all interests you, I would at least give it a shot. It's well made and big time fans of Cronenberg should love it. Even if you don't like it in the end; there's enough interesting stuff going on, that it won't feel like you just completely wasted your time. You are sure to see images that you have never seen in another movie.

Melvin White

Super Reviewer

Naked Lunch Quotes

– Submitted by Joanne R (3 years ago)
– Submitted by Joanne R (3 years ago)
– Submitted by Joanne R (3 years ago)
– Submitted by Joanne R (3 years ago)

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