Friday, January 25, 2008

Across the Universe

I know I'm a little late with this one, as it came out in October, but I feel I had to put in my two cents. If I recall correctly, this movie got some rather good reviews (I even put it on my top 20 for the remainder of the year). After watching it, however, I was sorely disappointed. It's almost as if they took a good idea, and stitched it together with a mediocre plot. The idea, of course, is remaking several dozen Beatles songs, and use them to form the foundation of a modern musical. The problem is that this was done too deliberately, and with these songs that everybody knows, you can't take the movie seriously.

Jim Sturgess stars as Jude, a dockworker from Liverpool who travels to America to find his estranged father. One there, he meets Max (Joe Anderson) and his sister, Lucy (Evan Rachel Wood). Jude and Max move in together, and Jude falls in love with Lucy. Everybody's relationships are strained when Max gets drafted to go to Vietnam. Lucy joins a radical anti-war group, and Jude struggles with his personal demons. During all of this, they're friends Sadie and Jo-Jo (if you haven't figured it out yet, everyone's named after a Beatles song. Prudence and Rita are also found) are in a band together with their own problems.

Most of the side characters didn't contribute much to the over-all plot of the movie. They mostly have the dual function of conveying the voice of the time, and as a vehicle for more songs. In fact, even the main characters are pretty weak. There's almost nothing hidden within any of them. This may be the drawback of having all of your characters singing everything their feeling.

The music is great, and the musical numbers are interesting. The arrangements vary in everything from fully orchestrated opuses, to acoustic ballads. Many of the numbers are of course accompanied by complicated choreography. As bizarre as many of these were, they were all basically entertaining. The problem with this concept is that the music drives the story, instead of reflecting it. Every scene was written around a song, and stitching together a career of songs into a plot, is not the same as writing a good story.

The love story and the romantic interest might have actually worked, but none of the details seem to mesh into anything coherent. A scene with a traveling circus to the tune of "Being for the Benefit of Mr. Kite," or a scene with soldiers carrying the Statue of Liberty while singing "She's So Heavy," or Max in a military hospital singing "Happiness is a Warm Gun" with Salma Hayek parading around him in a nurse's uniform. Many of the songs were even incorporated in laughably literal ways. Jude screams "All right!" over and over again to some people at the end of "Revolution." All of these take the dark nature of the plot, and just completely lose it.

It's a shame when someone is so dead set on a concept that they drown in it. Across the Universe is not even close to the sum of its parts. Julie Taymore is a very ample director (she was behind Frida). The problem was simply that she was so caught up in making everything fit the concept, the quality took a back seat. When a concept musical like this is done right, it can be very effective. Moulin Rouge is one of my favorite movies of all time, because Baz Luhrmann how to be subtle with an idea, instead of beating us over the head with it. The best thing to come from Across the Universe is, of course, the music. Even though I don't want to see it again, I do want to buy the soundtrack.


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