Tuesday, September 18, 2007

Across the Universe

Director: Julie Taymor (Titus, Frida)
Story: Julie Taymor, Dick Clement, Ian La Frenais
Screenplay: Dick Clement, Ian La Frenais
Producers: Matthew Gross, Jennifer Todd, Suzanne Todd
Starring: Evan Rachel Wood, Jim Sturgess, Joe Anderson, Dana Fuchs, Martin Luther, T.V. Carpio, Spencer Liff
MPAA Rating: PG-13
Running time: 131 min
read my spoiler disclaimer

reviewed by Misael Soto
     Like a shallow pool of water on a clear day, reflecting the world around it yet proving to have only a bit of water and nothing more underneath its charming façade, Julie Taymor’s third visually enthralling creation Across the Universe is a joy to see and hear but very quickly we yearn for substance beyond its beauty and stick our hand in to get something more solid and meaningful only to be thoroughly disappointed and left wanting more, much more. I had really high hopes for this film. The visuals in the adverts looked stunning. A movie musical set in the swinging 60s to the tune of the timeless songs of The Beatles, what could go wrong? Who knew the songs themselves, the jumping off point for the rest of the film it turns out, would be its undoing.

      Across the Universe of course takes place in the bustling, ever-changing 60s. We meet a slew of characters, all aptly named after characters from various Beatles’ tunes. Jude (Jim Sturgess), who we get to know first opening the film with a beautiful slowed-down version of Girl, moves to the US from Liverpool in search of his American father working in Princeton University. There he meets the roguish and likeable Max (Joe Anderson), who quickly drops out of school to follow a life more his own than his parents’. His sister Lucy (the stunning Evan Rachel Wood) has just graduated from high school and, following the death of her boyfriend in the early stages of Vietnam, finds herself in New York City along with Jude and Max. There they meet and eventually live with a number of people including the Janis Joplin-esque singer Sadie (Dana Fuchs), her on and off again Jimi Hendrix-like guitarist boyfriend JoJo (Martin Luther McCoy), and the introverted and insecure Prudence (T.V. Carpio).

      Some fall in love. Others go off to fight the war that many of them are protesting. All finding themselves and their life’s purpose in stereotypical 60s fashion. The film is consistently beyond idealistic, wallowing in simplistic, nostalgic nonsense. All of the characters come across severely underdeveloped because of it. I couldn't care less about any one of their relationships, their beliefs and (sometimes laughable) creative endeavors, and the War they were protesting. Nothing seems to matter in this world except pretty colors and sappy romance.

      Nearly every song used is taken out of its intended context (except for the earlier, poppier Beatles). The film's meaningless melodramatic story sucks dry any and all meaning from the otherwise meaningful songs. The barebones love-story script quite often uses the songs’ lyrics embarrassingly literally, employing them as plot devices to advance the script rather then for mood or, better yet, contextual meaning. We're left with often dull musical numbers that further the film’s plodding in shallow 60s nostalgia, albeit to the sound of great music, hardly engaging. To say Taymor’s latest is pretentious would be an understatement.

      Perhaps the main problem, particularly for me personally, is that these songs have visuals already, the visuals I’ve created in my mind listening to these timeless songs over the years. And as creative or inventive as the film may be, no actual visual, be it a music video or movie musical, can match those created in one's mind. I felt like leaving the theater on a number of occasions, as though my own interpretation of the songs was being altered, undermined even. Essentially, for me and perhaps many, the film is dead on arrival. The idea must've looked brilliant on paper. Sadly the execution is a failure. Maybe this is a personal gripe, but film criticism is virtually wholly subjective anyway.

      So after tearing the film to shreds, why am I still in a good enough mood to give the film at least 2 ½ stars? To put it plainly: I love the Beatles. I love nearly every one of their songs. Not only that, but the spirit of their songs and what they meant for an entire generation and what they personally stand for me now. Though she uses these songs and alters their meaning, Taymor does a great job of capturing the sense of unabashed child-like joy that many of their songs’ embodied. This coupled with the film’s fantastic visuals and the fact that there are in fact moments when Taymor gets it right, moments I can’t forget because of the way they lifted my spirits, and I can’t exactly hate the film. The dead-right musical arrangements and cinematography for a few noteworthy numbers; Happiness is a Warm Gun, Because, and Helter Skelter particularly come to mind, were enough to get me through the wider gaps of otherwise cringe-inducing cinema.

      Across the Universe swept me up in its idealism. I headed home on a natural high, in spite of of the fact that it was due to hollow, mind-numbing sentimentality. Afterwards I couldn't wait to get out Rubber Soul and pop it into the disc player. As much as I hated the overall product, I left Across the Universe smiling, humming and in stride with Ringo’s beat. I was happily in a state of disappointment.

      If any good comes from Taymor’s merry train wreck, there's the prospect that a new generation will be encouraged to discover the Fab Four's music in greater numbers. I suppose I can't argue with that.

      Like a clear puddle’s reflection on a sunny day, stop and admire Across the Universe from afar for its sheer virgin enjoyment and contagious idealism, but don’t touch or you’ll find yourself utterly disappointed.

Click "play" to see the trailer:

IMDb profile - full cast and crew
Official Site
Flixster Profile for Across the Universe
Misael's Flixster Profile

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Next entry: The Kingdom Previous entry: The Brave One
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    Back to the topic, spot on review. Nailed the style and feel of the film perfectly.

    Matt  on  10/09  at  06:03 PM
  2. Perhaps the main problem, particularly for me personally, is that these songs have visuals already, the visuals I’ve created in my mind listening to these timeless songs over the years.

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  3. I love the Story! Kudos!

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  4. I fell in love with this film, and look forward to sharing it with friends and family who didn’t have the luck to see it as I did. It’s a film that will, I’m sure, reward repeated viewings.

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