Sunday, April 4, 2010

Archive: "Across the Universe" (2007)

Julie Taymor certainly took a risk with "Across the Universe." It's a musical that takes place in the 1960s Vietnam era and features music exclusively by The Beatles. Julie Taymor is best known for directing the Broadway hit "The Lion King," so there's no denying that she has a thing for choreography and set pieces, and her visual gifts are very apparent in her new movie. It's hugely ambitious, and just like most other hugely ambitious movies, it doesn't fully succeed. But as it fails, it does so spectacularly because there were some moments in the movie I loved to go along with the moments that I thoroughly disliked. So, I sit here with mixed results and am left calling the movie a fascinating failure.

The narrative involves a dockworker from Liverpool conveniently named Jude (Jim Sturgess) who comes to America to find his father who left him. While there, he befriends a Princeton drop-out named Max, and then meets Max's sister, conveniently named Lucy (Evan Rachel Wood), who he falls in love with. The three of them move into a place in New York City together with a hippie singer named Sadie and a Jimmy Hendrix-esque guitarist named Jo-Jo. There's also an Asian girl named Prudence, whose name is conveniently used in another Beatles song. Cute, right? Yeah, we get it. A lot of the movie is set up so that a Beatles song can go with the progression of things, but the problem is that, more often than not, it feels blatantly forced. In a musical, the songs are meant to advance the story; here, many of the songs are squeezed in, feel out-of-place, and are only there to increase the content of the Beatles music.

While in New York, Max gets drafted to the Vietnam War, and Lucy gets involved in an anti-war group fighting for peace. The movie is political while pretending not to be, and it addresses other issues of that time including the Detroit riot and the assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr. If anything, these sidetracks make the movie feel even more unfocused and disjointed than it already is. The movie is also unclear on how it even wants to present the 60s because just as its solemn, the tone completely flips with an exaggerated comic book representation of the era. The tone is uneven as it sporadically shifts back and forth between frivolous and nostalgic. The best option would've been to forget the cultural commentary and stick with the stronger center following the love between Jude and Lucy; this is where the movie shines.

But before that, a movie taking place in the 60s isn't complete without a hallucinogenic drug trip. This referential magical mystery bus tour involves a cameo by Bono as he sings a version of "Call me the Walrus," which is just fine until the group comes across Mr. Kite, with another cameo, this time by the non-singing Eddie Izzard. What follows is an animated sequence of a bizarre circus show, a scene which should've been entirely cut and destroyed. And that's not the only supposedly inventive Beatles rendition that made me cringe in my seat. Five Selma Hayeks dressed up as sexy nurses break out into "Happiness is a Warm Gun," a scene which serves zero purpose. There's also a group of draftees carrying the Statue of Liberty in their underwear, singing "I Want You (She's So Heavy)," and there's a Vietnam-themed rendition of "Strawberry Fields Forever" that works until flaming strawberries start dropping like literal bombs. You can't blame Taymor for trying, but these are definitely head-scratchers.

Brushing aside the downright absurd sequences, somewhere along the line about halfway through, the movie begins capturing your heart through the things it does do right. A touching take on "I Want to Hold Your Hand," which will change the way you look at that song forever, a magnificent underwater scene, and of course, the rousing "Hey Jude," along with the big closer, "All You Need is Love" all carry moments of true inspiration. It's just too bad that the narrative and the characters aren't pushed to the emotional level that these musical numbers try so hard to convey. It's as if Taymor is using lavish set pieces and visual quirks to make up for a harmful absence of content in other areas. The movie is beautiful, yes, but it is beautifully hollow.

"Across the Universe" is a fantastic flop, a movie that is daring, different, and highly original, but doesn't exactly live up to its own expectations. And since when is PG-13 allowed to show nipple? Now, provided it's only Evan Rachel Wood's left breast, that's still more than what you'll find in most PG-13 features. I guess the MPAA is fine with a singular boob but then gets offended when a pair comes out.

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