America finds itself in the grip of a mysterious conspiracy. Mass delusion plagues the public. No one knows exactly who is behind the plot or why.

I’m referring, of course, to the stardom of Keanu Reeves. It began innocently enough with slacker-appropriate roles in River’s Edge, Parenthood and the Bill & Ted movies. But soon people who should have known better began casting him in period films (Dangerous Liaisons, Dracula), art-house flicks (My Own Private Idaho, Much Ado About Nothing) and upscale geek head trips (Johnny Mnemonic, Constantine). The Matrix briefly seemed like an inside joke — the most robotic actor of his generation playing humanity’s last hope in a war against machines — but the sequels proved that the Wachowski brothers, too, had succumbed to Reeves’ racket.

It was probably only a matter of time before Richard Linklater, a sucker for slackers, was similarly compromised. The writer-director’s latest film, a faithful adaptation of the 1977 Philip K. Dick novel A Scanner Darkly, stars Reeves asBob Arctor, a dope-addled layabout whose home serves as a flophouse for a group of equally dope-addled friends. Psychopharmacology has taken a radical leap forward and Bob & Co. are all addicted to Substance D, a drug so powerful that, as one character explains, “You’re either on it or you haven’t tried it.” What none of them know (including, at times, Bob) is that Bob is also an undercover policeman, code-named “Fred,” who’s keeping the house under surveillance in order to develop leads on Substance D suppliers. It’s not a double life so much as a life constantly rewound: Bob/Fred clowns around with his friends and does massive quantities of Substance D, then goes to a government office where he sits at a holographic “scanner” and watches recordings of himself clowning around with his friends and doing massive quantities of Substance D. Complicating matters is the fact that the drug has the unfortunate side effect of decoupling the right and left lobes of the brain, causing separate identities to emerge. Over time, Fred begins to forget that the man he is spying on is himself, while Bob doesn’t recognize that the eyes he and his paranoid friends constantly imagine to be watching them are in fact his own.

As with his talky 2001 daydream Waking Life (in which the director himself appeared onscreen to wax rhapsodic about Philip K. Dick), Linklater made A Scanner Darkly using rotoscopic animation, a process by which scenes are filmed with live actors and the footage is then used as a template for subsequent drawings. In Waking Life,this seemed largely a gimmick — an effort to add visual pizzazz to the wall-to-wall philosophizing. But here the cartoon realism works far better, with the simple lines and bright colors, simultaneously vague and vivid, neatly evoking the psychedelic dream state through which Bob/Fred wanders toward his eventual doom.

And doom there must be, unfortunately. Dick’s novel was a sci-fi variation on his own experience with drug addiction, and its somber key is a new one for Linklater, whose earlier foray into the cinema of substance abuse, Dazed and Confused, took a decidedly sunnier view. (Dick’s novel is dedicated to friends who died or were permanently disabled by drugs; Dazed and Confused carried the tag line “See it with a bud.”) It’s a peculiar match, and when, at the end of A Scanner Darkly, Linklater echoes Dick’s memorial to lost friends, it lands awkwardly. Partly, it’s a matter of social context: Unlike in the 1970s, no one today much worries that an entire generation of educated, middle-class youth might be lost to drugs. But more than that, it’s because, for most of the film, the portrayal of drug use is so . . . fun.

Blame Reeves’ costars. Bob’s two mind-altering roommates, Barris and Luckman, are played by Robert Downey Jr. and Woody Harrelson with the tonal perfection that can come only from extensive research. As they bicker and banter, threaten one another with small household objects, and try (unsuccessfully) to determine the number of gears on a bicycle, they display a combination of irritability and incompetence that is the soul of comedy. Downey, in particular, picks up where he left off in last year’s criminally overlooked Kiss Kiss Bang Bang, with another virtuoso performance as a character whose acrobatic patter cartwheels back on itself for frequent revisions. The final member of the druggie posse, screwball sad sack Freck, is played by Rory Cochrane, who, subsequent turns on CSI notwithstanding, was, is and always will be Slater from Dazed and Confused — one of the great stoners in cinematic history. What he is doing in an antidrug movie is anyone’s guess. About the only way Linklater could have undermined his film’s moral more aggressively would’ve been by persuading Sean Penn to star as a grown-up version of Spicoli.

On one level, Reeves is sensible casting for Bob/Fred, the character’s multiplying confusions providing a rather good fit for the aura of bafflement that the star brings to every role. But in a film that’s largely about the internal life of Bob/Fred, Reeves is at pains to show that he has one. Though he shambles persuasively through the film, he gives us no real reason to focus on him, especially not when there are such giddy delights around to distract us. Nor does Reeves get much help from an eminently forgettable Winona Ryder, who plays Donna, the would-be girlfriend Bob/Fred thinks he’s investigating, but who may in fact be investigating him. Toward the end of the movie, as this unhappy couple discover that Bob/Fred has merely been a pawn in a convoluted sting operation, the saddest thing is not what befalls them, but that they have pushed gonzo marvels Barris, Luckman and Freck offscreen. Sequel?

A SCANNER DARKLY | Written and directed by RICHARD LINKLATER, based on the novel by PHILIP K. DICK | Produced by ANNE WALKER-McBAY, TOMMY PALLOTTA, PALMER WEST, JONAH SMITH and ERWIN STOFF | Released by Warner Independent Pictures | At ArcLight, The Grove, AMC Century City and Monica 4-Plex

LA Weekly