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Across the Universe D
Year Released: 2007
It made me hate the songs. For the love of God, it made me hate the songs! I wouldn't have thought it possible, but Across the Universe actually renders the greatest rock and roll music ever written as desperate and irritating as Britney Spears' flop sweat. How does that happen? As with so many train wrecks before it, the film sinks so low because it aims so high... or at least it thinks it does. Its high-minded aspirations and gimmicky execution speak to talented people reaching for a singular vision with unswerving devotion -- unaware that they've been in free-fall almost from the start.
Its folly begins with the basic concept: a musical composed entirely of Beatles songs, used to present a panoramic overview of the 1960s. The second half of the equation is by far the most toxic, but let's begin with the first. Director and co-writer Julie Taymor and screenwriters Dick Clement and Ian Francis have attempted to base a narrative around as many lyrics of misters Harrison, Lennon, McCartney, and Starkey as possible: 30 minutes of dialogue interspersed with 105 minutes of she loves you, yeah, yeah, yeah. The strains of twisting coherent story elements into such an overarching frame render them clichéd and simplistic by necessity. Our central couple is named Jude and Lucy (Jim Sturgess and Evan Rachel Wood). They have pals named Sadie (Dana Fuchs), JoJo (Martin Luther), and Prudence (T.V. Carpio). They meet a hippie guru named Dr. Robert (Bono) and attend a psychedelic circus run by Mr. Kite (Eddie Izzard). Get the idea? Not only does it center the songs completely around their specific travails, but it allows more abstract dramatic developments to be glommed on with equal thoughtlessness: fraternity brothers cause innocent mischief to the strains of "With a Little Help from My Friends," while JoJo unknowing journeys towards the love of his life as bystanders croon "Come Together." The flimsy structure of Jude and Lucy's romance and the various crises of their circle quickly collapse beneath such contrivances. By the second hour, we're not watching a film so much as participating in a guessing game: trying to predict which Fab Four classic it will cram itself into next.
Taymor's visuals presume to make up for that. While her cast embarks upon heartfelt renditions of the songs, she garnishes them with surreal leaps into CGI: rooms that melt into cloud-laden skies, giant draft posters reaching ominously for unwilling recruits, etc. In this way, Across the Universe can be viewed as a series of cover videos, presenting a new rendition of the tunes with accompanying imagery to enhance/re-imagine their meaning. The difficulty is that Taymor (or perhaps the studio, judging from rumors) lacks the willingness to fully plunge into such possibilities. Instead, the half-developed visual cues repeatedly scoot back into dull reality, leaving a sense of profound timidity in their wake. Flights of imaginative fantasy quickly fade into clichéd shots of war protesters, while hypnotically floating lovers soon return to their threadbare apartment. In this way, Across the Universe hopes to bind the emotions elicited by the music into a specific time and place, but the transitions are far from seamless and invariably arrive just as the imagery begins to find its footing. The chosen path demands either a stronger link between the images and the plot, or simply abandoning any pretense of storyline and committing to spectacle for spectacle's sake.
The failure to do so would be easier to forgive if the main characters weren't such navel-gazing twerps. The six principles laze about in a fugue of sex, drugs, and thoughtless gratification, experiencing the unrest of the era less as a "revolution" (which they crow about with profound naïveté) as an intrusion on their good time. Across the Universe tries to reveal the full scope of that turbulent decade, but when filtered through these egocentric little me-monkeys, any presumptions to actual historical insight become laughable. Riots in Detroit appear as a near-random non-sequitur, acting principally to send the African-American JoJo to New York City with little sense of its effect on anyone outside of his immediate sphere. Meanwhile, Lucy's brother Max (Joe Anderson) drops out of Princeton only to be drafted into the Vietnam War: a very old story whose semi-tragic overtones fail to transcend the character's smug hubris. He ends up in the jungle because he ignores his options -- real options -- which millions of less privileged draftees were never fortunate enough to receive. Across the Universe shows us nothing of their plight, instead rendering the war's profound injustice as inadvertent comeuppance for a pampered, middle-class Boomer too enamored of his own self-discovery to think that the party would ever end.
That pattern plays out across any number of 1960s touchstones... and in the process transforms the wonderful, wonderful soundtrack into a narcissistic dirge. From what we see here, the Beatles exist for no one but these six. The lyrics define their lives, their experiences, their wonderful voyage through a magical time. No one else can find comfort and meaning in this music, no one else can relate to what Lennon and McCartney were saying. Magic hums through every number, but the film's structure -- by deliberate design -- applies it only to the narrow circumstances onscreen. By binding the Beatles so tightly to these characters (and by extension the generation to which they belong), Across the Universe jealously prevents anyone else from connecting to them. I won't delve too deeply into the familiar case against Boomers (Paul Begala makes a brilliant argument here), but suffice it to say that Across the Universe unwittingly embodies every negative stereotype attached to them even as it lionizes the sad delusions espoused by the worst of their ranks. Theirs was the essential journey of youth, it tells us: fevered participation in the profound upheavals of that era which changed the world for the better. By now, most of us realize what a hollow crock that is... though Across the Universe might have sold us on it had it ever escaped the self-important fog cloaking its every frame. I concede Taymor's visual imagination, and the possibilities of harnessing it to this medium. But here, it remains a jaw-dropping liability -- unfocused, grandiose, and like the figures it champions, ultimately quite gutless.
Review published 09.14.2007.
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