Sunday, April 12, 2009

A Frank Review of "Across the Universe" (2007)

The Short Version? A Beatles movie without the Beatles, for the benefit of Mr. Jackson (Andrew or Michael)
What Is It? Musical.
Who's In It? Evan Rachel Wood and too many celebrity cameos.
Should I See It? No.

I was raised on Elvis, but by my late teens I'd seen "Help!" and "A Hard Day's Night," so I figured I was reasonably enlightened about the Beatles. Then one day, my estranged father cried, "What do you mean, you've never heard 'Bungalow Bill'?" A few mix tapes later, and my education had truly begun. This is why, like you, I'm appalled to hear my girlfriend tell how, a few song exempted, she hates the Beatles. I assure you good reader, I'm working on this grievous error in her judgment (she's foreign, you know,) and my visiting sister & brother-in-law seemed inclined to help. They excitedly recommended Julie Taymor's "Across the Universe," claiming that it recontextualized the Beatles catalog through a rock operatic narrative. Well, maybe not exactly in those words, but that's what they meant. You see, normal people don't use words like "recontextualized," and they get off on middling tripe. If you're reading these words, you're probably abnormal, and have better movies to waste over two hours on. For instance, "Hair" or "The Wall," or even "Grease," from which this flick steals liberally.

There's a lot to criticize here; the "on-the-nose" references, the barely existent characterization, the nonexistent story, the over reliance on hits over album cuts, the parade of pointless cameos... but the main source of irritation is the phoniness of it all. This is a Vietnam-era musical written by a pair a geriatrics (born: 1937) acted by kids too young to remember New Kids On The Block, with only the director being of a generation that should know better.Truth to tell, I'm about a generation removed from Taymor, and I still feel like I already lived through this version of the decade via other movies. The film doesn't represent history so much as regurgitate other features' nostalgic recollections. It seems to base/plagiarize its '60s on such unimpeachable sources as Forest Gump, old episodes of The Wonder Years and the worst of the 1980s flashback flicks to the hippie era. I hope Taymor lived the '60s, and was therefore too stoned to remember them, but I suspect she was instead a shut-in getting her information on love-ins from Walter Cronkite and Dragnet reruns.

The only thing lending this parade of cliche legitimacy is the Lennon/McCartney songbook, sung with all the verve of an Accura commercial. Jim Sturgess adequately channels the songwriters' spirit, but Evan Rachel Wood's vocals, while respectable, are ill-suited for the material. You've got characters with names like "Jude" and "Prudence," because someone has to have a reason to sing "Hey Jude" and "Dear Prudence." Never mind that Prudence only appears in a few scenes, offering a rare amusing variation on a standard and a heaping helping of political correctness (serving double duty as both "token Asian" and "lesbian." Never fear, there's a token black to peddle a limp Jimi Hendrix riff, while his girlfriend stands in for Janis Joplin (though her namesake track, "Sexy Sadie," doesn't seem to have been popular enough to make the cut.) Eddie Izzard offers an inspired turn as Mr. Kite, but to reach him you must cross over Bono's heinous East Coast accent and absolute butchering of "I Am The Walrus." Once again, Bono plays Dr. Robert, referencing a song that hasn't been licensed for a Microsoft commercial, so don't expect the actual tune.

That's the movie in a nutshell, actually. All the biggest, most familiar tunes; used in the most obvious ways, disregarding any deep meaning, with the expectation of the greatest commercial yield. It pretends idealism, but is really about as cynical, shallow, and opportunistic as you can get. If that's your take on the Beatles intentions with the material, they nailed it.

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