Musicals are the most criminally underappreciated of film genres. That is not to say they are critically ignored, and there's no denying that they are more popular today than they were ten years ago, but having characters burst into song is still a format which is an acquired taste. The reason for some viewers' resistance to such escapes me. When done right, there's is nothingand I do mean nothing
more magical in cinema than when a person finally breaks out from the conformity of spoken dialogue and expresses themselves through song, and in some cases, dance. The melding of images with music is powerful, indeed, and "Across the Universe," director Julie Taymor's (2002's "Frida") 133-minute, 33-track tribute to The Beatles, is a visually extraordinary work to behold. Taymor, an almost incomparably vibrant aesthetic stylist (she also won a Tony Award for adapting "The Lion King" to Broadway), makes sure that her projects are bold and memorable to look at, if nothing else. "Across the Universe" is no exception to this rule. What is disappointing, then, is that the film's technical imagination and use of great music is at the service of a pedestrian plot, flat characters, disorganized editing, and a love story that is lifeless enough to cause irreparable damage to the whole enterprise.
It's the 1960s, and as the Vietnam War heats up in the distance, blue-collar dock worker Jude (Jim Sturgess) leaves his home in Liverpool and travels across the pond to America to track down his estranged father (Robert Clohessy). While visiting the college campus where he works as a maintenance man, Jude befriends reluctant Ivy Leaguer Max (Joe Anderson) and, later, Max's teenage sister Lucy (Evan Rachel Wood). When Max drops out of college, he and Jude make a break for New York City, renting space in a communal apartment with aspiring musician Sadie (Dana Fuchs). After Lucy discovers that her boyfriend has been killed in the war, she, too, moves to the Big Apple, embarking on a whirlwind romance with Jude and involving herself in radical activism that ultimately puts a strain on their relationship.
About seventy-five percent of "Across the Universe" is told through a comprehensive soundtrack of classic songs from The Beatles, and director Julie Taymor's influences are sometimes unmistakable, with 1982's "Pink Floyd: The Wall," 1979's "Hair" and 2001's "Moulin Rouge
" all coming to mind as her own inferior hodgepodge plays out. In essence, it sounds like a can't-miss sure thing, a musical and Fab Four lover's wet dream. Taymor does go wrong, however, over and over again. Every time the singing subsides and the loose story and shoddily-developed characters have to pick up the slack, the film's momentum stops cold. There is nothing interesting enough about either to fill up two hours-plus. The screenplay by Dick Clement and Ian La Frenaise (2006's "Flushed Away
") is scraggy and superficial. The ensemble are cookie-cutter types, clunkily introduced into the story, some forgotten about for long stretches, and all whose actions are dictated only out of obligation to the script. As for the plot, it is more a series of barely-connected episodes than a narrative one is able to build a solid foundation upon. As characters turn to radicalism, head to Vietnam, call for peace, experiment with mind-altering substances, and basically react to random events from the decadenearly all mentions of racial matters, it should be said, are dishonestly washed overthe movie seems to be crossing off a laundry list of clichés as it goes.
Were the musical sections unequivocal successes, perhaps the prevalent flaws of "Across the Universe" could have been overlooked. Alas, trouble is afoot within the first five minutes. The setup and incorporation of the songs into the action are occasionally abrupt, clumsy and rhythmless. Additionally, too many of the performances are way too ineffectual and brief (only a few lines of lyrics) to reach the energetic heights they are shooting for. "All My Loving" comes and goes in a whiplash-rendering blink, the words haphazardly directed toward a character the viewer hasn't gotten to know or care about in the least. Lucy's soft and slow love ballad "If I Fell" is egregiously placed directly after a joyous and giddy moment between herself and Jude and slows things to a crawl. "While My Guitar Gently Weeps," performed by JoJo (Martin Luther McCoy), is boring and difficult to sit through. "Strawberry Fields Forever" is an unlikely and misguided representation of the lyrics at hand. "Blackbird" is over before it has time to get going. Word to future filmmakers of the musical format: let the actors sing the entire songs to completion!
It is only on those rare instances where the music does play out from start to finish that the movie takes flight and hints at how wondrous its entirety would have been with a better script. Highlights include "I Want to Hold Your Hand," sung by outcast cheerleader Prudence (T.V. Carpio) as she yearns to embrace her homosexuality; "With a Little Help from My Friends," performed in a breathless montage as Jude bonds with Max and his buddies at college; "Let It Be," transformed into a tragedy-laced gospel song; "I Want You," which begins with the iconic Uncle Sam poster coming to life and pulling Max toward his frightening military induction; "I Am the Walrus," a psychedelic free-for-all trip down Hallucinatory Way, performed by U2 frontman Bono, in the small, quirky role of Dr. Robert; and the equally mind-bending, animation-fueled "The Benefit of Mr. Kite," a showcase for cameoing Eddie Izzard (2006's "My Super Ex-Girfriend
"). Julie Taymor's everything-but-the-kitchen-sink approach to several of these sequences is impulsive and creative, pulsing with kaleidoscopic color schemes, underwater choreography, and even giant puppets.
Of the castmates, Jim Sturgess (2005's "Mouth to Mouth") is the standout as Jude; soulful, charismatic and blessed with gloriously silky pipes, he deserves to be a star. Evan Rachel Wood (2006's "Running with Scissors
") is a fine singer in her own right, but her turn as Lucy is a blank slate lacking in depth. Joe Anderson (2007's "Becoming Jane") suffices as Max. As the doubting, initially uncomfortable-in-her-skin Prudence, T.V. Carpio (2004's "She Hate Me") is lovely but underutilized. The remaining central actors aren't around enough to make an impression.
"Across the Universe" is an ambitious failure, but a failure nonetheless. It is a jagged-edged, editorially butchered (one can only suspect from the unevenness from scene to scene) musical that only calls further attention to how well recent efforts such as the aforementioned "Moulin Rouge
," 2002's "Chicago
," 2004's "The Phantom of the Opera
" and 2005's "Rent
" were in comparison. Taymor is tops when it comes to capturing a rapturous, one-of-a-kind image, but her structural missteps dominate over the good parts and her inability to make the audience care about anyone on the screen is calamitous to the outcome. For a film celebrating life and love, "Across the Universe" ironically and unforgivably leaves the viewer feeling cold.