Across the Universe (United States, 2007)
One could never argue that Across the Universe isn't ambitious. However, like many ambitious movies, this one fails spectacularly. Glenn Kenny of Premiere magazine called it "the perfect disaster" and, while I think that's a little harsh, I understand where he's coming from. Elements of Across the Universe are shockingly awful and the film lasts at least 30 minutes past the bearable stage. But if you like the Beatles and the idea of hearing about 20 covers of their work fills you with a perverse joy, this may be the movie for you.
The film has had a troubled production history. It was reportedly taken away from director Julie Taymor after advance preview screenings resulted in jeers and catcalls. The producers re-cut the movie and it was received with more warmth, but Taymor went public with her gripe and this stirred up controversy. Apparently, the 133-minute theatrical cut is Taymor's version. If it's not, I shudder to think how much worse a longer edition could be.
The lack of anything resembling a compelling narrative is part of the problem. It's the 1960s and Liverpool native Jude (Jim Sturgess) has traveled across the Atlantic in search of the dad he never knew. He is befriended by Princeton drop-out Max (Joe Anderson) and falls in love with his sister, Lucie (Evan Rachel Wood). Soon, these three are doing road trips, fighting against the War in Vietnam (or, in Max's case, fighting in Vietnam), and experiencing everything the era has to offer. They are joined on their odyssey by an Asian lesbian cheerleader (T.V. Carpio), a Janis Joplin clone (Dana Fuchs), and a Jimi Hendrix wannabe (Martin Luther).
Taymor has always been best known for the imaginative visual aspects of her films and stage productions (see Titus for her best screen work), and there's no shortage of tricks in her bag this time: animation, puppets, underwater sequences, psychedelic imagery, and more. Somehow, however, it all seems gratuitous - a way to distract the viewer from how pointless the story is. Like the shot of Wood's left breast (more nipple than one normally sees in a PG-13 production), it's all a bit of a tease. And none of these elements shows much in the way of technical achievement - they're the kinds of things any reasonably adept graphic designer can accomplish on a properly equipped home PC.
The songs are a bigger distraction than the visuals. With only a few exceptions, most of them are out-of-place. They are shoehorned in simply to increase the film's Beatles music content. The expected approach in a musical is for the songs to advance the story. In Across the Universe, the narrative pauses roughly every seven minutes so the characters can break into song, then resumes when they're done. This approach makes it impossible to identify with the characters or be interested in their circumstances. And, while the singing is of variable quality, most of the dance numbers are amateurish.
Jim Sturgess and Joe Anderson were obviously chosen more for their singing ability than their talent as actors. To their credit, they make a credible Lennon/McCartney pair. Evan Rachel Wood has a surprisingly strong set of pipes. The vocal stylings of the supporting performers is variable, and includes a torturous version of "I Wanna Hold Your Hand" by T.V. Carpio which may destroy your ability to ever again hear that song cleanly. Eddie Izzard, Joe Cocker, and Bono have cameos. Oddly, Cocker does not contribute "With a Little Help From My Friends," even though his recorded cover is arguably more recognizable than the original (thanks in large part to the TV series The Wonder Years).
I have heard Across the Universe being referred to as this generation's Sergeant Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band, and I can't refute the argument. There are also times when the film evokes memories of Xanadu. Neither of those stinkers is the kind of company any self-respecting musical wants to keep. It's hard to argue that the idea behind Across the Universe is a bad one - after all, Baz Luhrmann did something similar with Moulin Rouge and the Beatles music is incredibly versatile. The problem, therefore, must be in the execution, and it's a big problem. With a shorter running length, it might have been possible to appreciate Across the Universe as an entertaining failed spectacle. But, at 2:15, the word "entertaining" no longer applies in any context.
Across the Universe (United States, 2007)
Cast: Evan Rachel Wood, Jim Sturgess, Joe Anderson, Dana Fuchs, Martin Luther, T.V. Carpio
Screenplay: Dick Clement & Ian La Frenais
Cinematography: Bruno Delbonnel
Music: Elliot Goldenthal
U.S. Distributor: Columbia Pictures