Saturday, September 15, 2007

"Across the Universe" -- * * * 1/2

Anyone who tries to tell you Julie Taymor's "Across the Universe" doesn't have flaws should probably ingest less illegal substances before going to the movies. However, anyone who allows those flaws to keep them from surrendering to the film's wonders may be severely lacking in their capacity for joy.

Taymor's finished product is just as nutso, jumbled and completely delightful as you probably expected when you first heard the trippy, self-indulgent artist was crafting a '60s-set musical made up completely of Beatles songs. The story's weak and the characters ill-defined, but who gives a fuck when everything surrounding them is so goddamned beautiful, exciting and glorious to behold? Anyone with even a passing interest in adventurous cinema, musicals, surreal imagery, and most of all, The Beatles, has no right to sit this one out.

The characters are almost all named after Beatles songs, and our leads are, inevitably, middle America-hailing Lucy (Evan Rachel Wood) and Jude (Jim Sturgess), who's come to New York from-- where else?-- Liverpool. The two develop a complicated romance while living in a Greenwich Village apartment with Lucy's drop-out brother, Max (Joe Anderson), the Hendrix-esque Jo-Jo (Martin Luther McCoy), the Joplin-reminiscent Sadie (Dana Fuchs, who also played Joplin in Off-Broadway's "Love Janis), and the sweet, frustrated lesbian Prudence (T.V. Carpio). The story spans (I think) a decade as Jude and Lucy run into their fair share of problems, and Taymor takes us on numerous characters' adventures through the '60s.

The simplistic story here is just a framework upon which to hang a non-stop series of breathtaking musical numbers, but considering the numbers are the film's raison d'atre (the 33 Beatles songs make up about 95% of the running time), I doubt much of the audience will be complaining. Still, one should know going in that they're not likely to find themselves terribly attached to any of the characters; Taymor's direction and imagination is truly the star.

Like many Broadway "jukebox musicals"-- shows inspired by the music of one particular artist-- "Universe" occasionally suffers from story beats obviously dictated by specific songs' content and often results in silly literal interpretations of lyrics (during "A Little Help From My Friends," the mention of getting high is sung over an image of a character inahling). But more often than not, Taymor's innate artistry takes hold, and sets songs to fascinatingly extravagant visualizations of them ("Strawberry Fields" features Jude pinning bleeding strawberries to a white canvas, leading into a hallucination of strawberry bombs being dropped over Southeast Asia), or interprets them in a fresh way that might leave you unable to listen to the song the same way again.

In fact, her more out-of-left-field touches are often the most effective; interpretations of "I Want to Hold Your Hand" as a ballad of unrequited lesbian love and "Let It Be" as a gospel-infused elegy for victims of the '67 Detroit riots are unexpected and tremendously powerful. "Because," sung by our group of main characters while laying in a field, is also quietly haunting and lingers throughout the rest of the film.

Some of the less striking numbers in the film are still smile-inducing and many audience members will fight the urge to sing along, but around the film's midpoint, the proceedings become increasingly more off-the-wall. The two flashiest (and most memorable) numbers in the film would have to be "I Want You (She's So Heavy)" and "Being for the Benefit of Mr. Kite." I loved both, but I could see some finding the latter-- featuring Eddie Izzard as Mr. Kite, as well as his chorus of blue people, in probably the closest simulation of psychedelic drugs I've ever seen on film-- distracting from the flow of the movie.

"I Want You," on the other hand, is unquestionably brilliant and abstract. Kicking off with Uncle Sam banners coming to life and segueing into Army training with drill sergeants who all look like G.I. Joe dolls, sequence hits its apex when cutting to soldiers in Vietnam in their skivvies singing the chorus "She's So Heavy" while carrying the Statue of Liberty on their back.

Lest I make the film sound like it'll solely appeal to weirdos, these arty flourishes are frequent but not persistent. Versions of "I've Just Seen a Face," "It Won't Be Long," "Hey Jude" and "All You Need is Love," to name a few, are superb covers of the songs without veering into the intensely surreal. Still, if you're able to take "Mr. Kite," the rest will be a cakewalk for you.

Though the film's main goal is to turn you on in every audio-visual respect, it's also one that truly believes in the transcendental power of art and the healing effects of love. At every turn, even in the most perverse or cynical moments, the film seems to be saying positive and hopeful things about the human condition, however simplistically. Needless to say, some will give themselves in to it; others will be in agony for 131 minutes. By the time the movie hit its "All You Need Is Love" conclusion, I was unashamedly grinning like an idiot, so take that as you will.

I'm sorry to say, likely due to it long being considered a troubled project, "Across the Universe" will probably be lucky if it makes it to the $10 million mark. The studio doesn't appear to give a shit about it, damning it with haphazard marketing and a fart of a release (it gets dumped in a mere 400 theaters next weekend). It's a movie that's destined to be re-watched over and over on DVD by its inevitable fanbase, but most people I've talked to don't even know what it is, let alone have a desire to see it.

Plenty of critics have already complained about the film (reviews on Rotten Tomatoes are split right down the middle), with some calling it wildly self-indulgent and just a series of music videos. Those who can't enjoy two-hours-plus of thrilling re-imaginings of some of the best songs ever written, simply because there's not a terribly strong story or screenplay surrounding them, will have a difficult time with "Across the Universe." Coherence clearly wasn't the order of the day here, and that might be a problem for some people. Thankfully, I'm not one of those people.

"Across the Universe" is now playing in New York, Los Angeles, Miami, Washington DC, Chicago, Boston, Seattle, Philadelphia and San Francisco, and opens everywhere September 21st.

Update (9/20 2:46am): For unknown reasons, Sony has decided that the film will be expanding this weekend to 250 screens, not 400, which means some markets that thought they'd be getting the film will not be (Baltimore included). Further detailed release patterns have not been announced.



Blogger Jamie said...

Gah. One of the 400 better be in/around Baltimore next weekend.

Anyway, I really want you to review Dragon Wars. Pleeeeease.

11:18 AM  
Blogger Jamie said...

Re: the update. Weirdly, it'll be playing in Annapolis. On two screens. At the same theater. Shrug.

3:17 PM  

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