Movie Review
Across the Universe
Director: Julie Taymor
Cast: Joe Anderson, Jim Sturgess, Evan Rachel Wood

i am not going to be talking about the industry gossip surrounding this movie, except to point out that when a male director has problems with the studio, he’s eccentric, dedicated to his vision and speaks his mind, but when a female director has problems with the studio, she’s crazy and incompetent and shrill. What a load of nonsense. No, what I’d rather talk about is the movie as it is, since that’s the one we’re seeing.

It’s fun. I’m not willing to go much further than that, but it’s fun.

I have my problems with it, to be sure. Some of the singing feels very Radio Disney, like it would be more at home in High School Musical than in Across the Universe. A lot of the singing is really quite powerful, but some of it…well, you can practically hear the ProTools tooling away. And as for the songs themselves, the movie shares the difficulty that all these musicals based on the music of a single artist have, namely that the musical numbers quickly feel like an obligation: “OK, we have to fit in �With a Little Help from My Friends’ here, so let’s write it in.” There are some times when this is more awkward than others. “Dear Prudence” is achieved by creating a depressed lesbian named Prudence who locks herself into the bathroom in a fit of unrequited love, who, after she’s been convinced to come out and play, pretty much disappears from the story. And I can’t tell if the irony of having Jude sing the anti-violence “Revolution” while he tries to beat up a bunch of people is intentional or not.

Still, both the setups for the songs and the choreography are often clever, if sometimes disconcertingly literal. Picture an Uncle Sam recruitment poster sing the opening of “I Want You (She’s So Heavy),” and the lady who’s so heavy being the Statue of Liberty, and you’ll get the idea.

That number was one of the best parts of the movie, with the scary CGI Uncle Sam and the disconnected body imagery of the physical exam at the draft board and the soldiers slogging through the miniature jungle, carrying the Statue of Liberty like pallbearers carrying a coffin. Every time Julie Taymor remembers who she is and departs from reality, the movie brightens up and becomes really great, but for far too much of the time she seems to be holding herself back, as if she thinks a musical about hippies set to Beatles music should be more naturalistic than her other work (although, come to think of it, I had a similar problem with Frida).

It’s particularly a shame because all of this movie’s many good qualities rest on a mighty shaky foundation. The story and dialogue are perched precariously on the cliff of unbearable cliché, and bits of it continually tumble over the edge. Ask a random person on the street to predict the plot of a movie about a bunch of misfit hippies navigating the hazards of the 60s, and the odds are they would nail it.

Except, perhaps, for the ending, which is I guess where I need to break my resolution not to mention the gossip. The ending is so tacked-on, so neatly wrapped up in a happy ending for everyone, in such opposition to the events leading up to it, that I can’t help but think, aha! There’s the hand of the studio, dabbling in things it doesn’t understand. From the moment “Don’t Let Me Down” is recast as a sort of hippie “Don’t Go Breaking My Heart,” things get patched up at such a breakneck pace that the movie accidentally makes all kinds of statements that I think it would disagree with. We learn, among other things, that as long as you actually survive the war, it’s smooth sailing from there on out (what’s trauma?), that a legal immigration status solves all problems, that interracial couples can be perfectly accepted and happy in the late 60s so long as they keep their sexuality off-screen, and that the same is true of lesbians as long as they resign themselves to asexuality completely. OK, there’s a little bit of girl-on-girl in the credits, but by then most of the audience is gone, anyway.

Any narrative about the 60s can’t help but be a commentary on current events, stuck as we are in a never ending, immoral war, in the midst of our own struggle with racist hate (immigrants carry terrible diseases and Arabs and Muslims are terrorists!), but Across the Universe isn’t particularly interested in examining a time in history, our own or that of its setting, in any kind of depth, or seriously engaging any of the issues it brings up. Of course, this is only a problem if you expect or want it to do that. The movie seems more interested in simply reminding us of everything that happened, which is in itself a laudable goal. We could use more reminding.

Across the Universe is currently in wide release.

By: Ethan Robinson
Published on: 2007-10-16
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