Across the Universe June 19, 2016
Julie Taymor’s Across the Universe makes a convincing case for why maximalism is not always a musical’s greatest gift. An epic statement of a film with a soundtrack solely comprised of the finest tunes of The Beatles, it is a fatiguing (but beautifully crafted) exercise in style that perhaps knows the right moves but nevertheless smothers them in tiresome artistic self-indulgence.
But what an intoxicating mess it is. Bruno Delbonnel’s cinematography is pulsating and carnal, so profuse in its color and its heavenly warmth that the film seems to defy the two-dimensional constraints of the celluloid. The actors, all young, pretty, and passionate, are sensitive performers who have the buttery voices to do the legendary music justice. Taymor, as much as she dislikes the art of the nuance, is a master of staging and of creating cohesion between song and story (not a surprise: she’s best known for her sensational direction of Broadway’s The Lion King).
So much of it is thrilling, but much of it is also overbearing and accidentally flimsy. It unwisely uses the socially and culturally shifting climate of the 1960s as basis for its story, which is too serious and too historically imperative to tread over as lightly as Across the Universe does. I’m unsure what direction Taymor should have led the film toward, but as she’s most comfortable as a maestro of eye-candy and not of story, using the Vietnam War and Civil Rights struggles as backdrops and not as sober centers characterizes the movie as superficial.
But even if the plot were frothier, I’m persuaded that Across the Universe would remain to be trivial. The story is really only in place to give the performers, the songs, and the style, something to latch onto. It’s all about as deep as a long-form music video, unequipped to last for the two-and-a-half hours that it does. And so it’s a frustrating example of great moments barely threaded together to make an enthralling feature length movie. It’s high concept without the emotional lustiness to propel it forward.
Its ensemble, at least, is enchanting enough to provide Across the Universe with the humanistic beguilement it otherwise skimps on. Finding its setting in both England and the United States in the late 1960s, the film stars Jim Sturgess as Jude, a Liverpool based shipyard worker looking to find deeper meaning outside of his simplistic world. Curious in regards to his background, he enlists in the Navy as means to jump ship to New Jersey, where he plans to find his father.
The eventual meeting doesn’t go as well as he might have liked, leaving him without much reason to be in America. But such is the case only until he meets Max (Joe Anderson), a bratty but charismatic college student whom he quickly befriends. Through Max, Jude swiftly, and unexpectedly, falls madly in love with his sister, Lucy (Evan Rachel Wood), whom has a boyfriend but nonetheless sees something in Jude, too.
The plot thickens as Across the Universe goes on — Jude and Lucy do ultimately fall victim to a torrid romance, and the cultural landscape grows in its restlessness in the background — but the details are boring and much less electrifying when not paired with standout performances of classic Beatles songs. Everything looks and sounds exquisite, and yet there’s something curiously hollow about Across the Universe, which is unquestionably a result of the characters being shallowly written and of the film’s firm belief that its storyline’s ambition can actually seem meaningful in the context of a lavish musical.
But I admire Taymor’s handiwork, which, slight as it is, is positively awe-inspiring on an optic level. The actors carry the movie; it sometimes feels more substantial than it is because their earnestness is so palpable. The reworkings of "I Wanna Hold Your Hand" (which finds ingenious melancholy in the lyrics) and "I Want You" (mounted to an extraordinarily realized group spectacle that ties into the draft) are especially memorable. And cameos by Bono, Salma Hayek, and Eddie Izzard are superbly placed. But Across the Universe is an embodiment of the classic ideal of spotlighting Beauty for Beauty’s Sake — take away its stylistically inhibited elements and you’re left with a pretty pile of dust. C+