ACROSS THE UNIVERSE
Director: Julie Taymor
Cast: Jim Sturgess, Evan Rachel Wood, Joe Anderson, Dana Fuchs, Martin Luther McCoy, T.V. Carpio
MPAA Rating: (for some drug content, nudity, sexuality, violence and language)
Running Time: 2:11
Release Date: 9/14/07 (limited); 9/21/07 (wide)
Review by Mark Dujsik
A monumental miscalculation of a musical, Across the Universe combines director Julie Taymor's surreal visual style and bastardized versions of the songs of The Beatles to attempt to hold together an entirely generic, utterly bland, and unnecessarily multi-arced story about the experience of 1960s. Musicals, by their nature, are codependent. In the best, the story and the music can exist on their own, but each is heightened by the other. They can somewhat work if one element carries the other, but in this case, both weigh down the whole project, both separately and especially combined. What exactly went wrong here is hard to fathom. The concept—a look at the '60s set to the changing tone and style of The Beatles, a staple of the soundtrack of the era—is a fine one, full of potential, and Taymor is just the kind of visionary voice to pull it off. The result, though, is an absolute mess. For a movie that on the surface appears to worship the Fab Four, it's shocking just how little it comprehends what makes their music still relevant, still catchy, still great.
A young boy named Jude (Jim Sturgess, and don't worry, there are plenty more forced Beatles-related names to come) sits on a beach and sings the opening lines of "Girl." Some time before, Jude and his girlfriend dance to "Hold Me Tight" in a Liverpool underground punk club, while in the US Lucy (Evan Rachel Wood) dances with her boyfriend, who's about to enter boot camp. Jude arrives in the States to find his father (Robert Clohessy) and gets caught up with Max (Joe Anderson), a Princeton student and Lucy's brother. They sing "With a Little Help from My Friends" as they get drunk. Jude visits Max's family for Thanksgiving, and Lucy discovers that her boyfriend has been killed. Max drops out of college, and he and Jude rent an apartment in New York City from a Janis Joplin-esque Sadie (Dana Fuchs). They are later joined by Lucy, a Hendrix-inspired JoJo (Martin Luther McCoy), who left his home (which is not Tucson, Arizona), and Prudence (T.V. Carpio), who we earlier saw in Ohio longing after the head cheerleader. Lucy gets involved in the antiwar effort, Max is drafted, Jude draws, and everyone else does even less.
Dick Clement and Ian La Frenais' screenplay tries really, insufferably hard to bring in as many characters as possible, with as little effort as necessary, and with no success whatsoever to encompass the multifaceted world of the '60s. There are simply too many people doing too little to really get at the heart of anything the script covers; it barely scratches the surface. Whether it's Jude, Lucy, and Max singing "Dear Prudence" to (Whom else?) Prudence to get her out and have fun at (of all places) an antiwar march or Jude storming into a Students for a Democratic Society headquarters to sing "Revolution" (a choice which completely misses the point of the song and the scene, but more on that later), it's painfully clear that Clement and La Frenais (and Taymor, who has a story credit) set forth with the songs first on their minds, while the story remains a far distant second. The only section where the music and story come together is a tedious psychedelic trip the gang takes with the help of Dr. Robert (Bono as Robin Williams as Timothy Leary), where they eventually meet Mr. Kite (Eddie Izzard speak-singing the song named after his character) at his trippy circus.
Taymor's visual flair is on full display in these sequences, but they're so monotonously uninvolving, they become just as hollow as everything around them. There are a few dance numbers here, too, but they lack energy. Worst of all, the songs are an unqualified disaster. The Beatles' songs remain near and dear to our hearts because of the simple but still rich instrumentation and harmonies, but they're butchered here. I never imagined a more melancholy, more pointless version of "I Want to Hold Your Hand" than the bass-heavy arrangement Prudence sings, and it's made even worse because the scene serves as her only introduction. From here on, the songs rarely fit the situation at hand except in incredibly superficial ways. Jude sings "Something" to himself, even though Lucy is right there. Only the title of "Come Together" (in part sung by Joe Cocker) fits into JoJo arriving in New York, and "I Want You (She's So Heavy)" goes from political satire to seduction to unrequited love with dizzying clumsiness. "Happiness Is a Warm Gun" oddly turns into an ode to painkillers (despite) as Max recovers in the hospital, and when Jude stares at a plate of strawberries, the only natural reaction is to dread how the screenwriters will haphazardly plug that song into the story.At first you notice the cast singing these ruined standards well enough (although Sturgess and Anderson sound the same, Wood has a pretty voice, lessened by her concentration on enunciation), but then you can't help but be pissed at how uniformly spoiled these songs have become. I'm listening to The Beatles right now, and it helps the effort of trying to forget Across the Universe.
Copyright © 2007 by Mark Dujsik. All rights reserved.
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