“Either learn French or die”
Julie Taymor’s film Across the Universe has been high up on my most anticipated list for a year now. Taking classic and lesser-known Beatles’ tunes, she has crafted a contemporary musical about a group of young adults at the turning point of life during the start of the Vietnam War. While highly ambitious and oftentimes gorgeous to behold, the film ultimately ends up being a failed attempt at genius. Visually stunning, almost every sequence assaults your eyes with beauty and unique splendor. Unfortunately, Taymor may have fallen victim to excess. Trying to jampack every character ever used in their music becomes overkill, adding scenes that add nothing to the story but a way to add more songs.
By gleaning each name she could use as a character, Taymor finishes with mixed results. While it worked for Lucy, an effective Evan Rachel Wood; Jude, relative newcomer Jim Sturgess in a great turn as our lead; and Max, Joe Anderson with the best performance of the film, it was too strained for others like Mr. Kite and Dr. Roberts. Sure Bono is fantastic as the psychedelic Roberts, but his sole purpose in the movie is to get the crew over to Kite, who, while played nicely by Eddie Izzard, is totally unnecessary in the grand scheme of things. Along with these moments is a scene that introduces Martin Luther McCoy as JoJo, a guitar player getting away from the tragedies at home. A perfect example of how uneven the film is, this sequence involves a pimp and his whores singing along to “Come Together.” Sure the choreography is great, but the pimp is just plain awkward staring into the camera with a stoic face as JoJo keeps walking away. It isn’t all a waste, though, because the moment when he walks down the street, through a mob of clone-like worker bees, is fantastic to behold. How she could ruin moments of shear brilliance with those of gaudy frivolities is beyond me. Even when taking the lyrics literally with “I Want You (She’s so Heavy)” comes a number that is truly stunning. Having Uncle Sam hijack Max’s life, culminating into the troops carrying the Statue of Liberty is somewhat breathtaking if not entirely heavy-handed.
It is also this anti-war imagery that causes a bit of a problem. If Taymor kept with the strict stance throughout, I wouldn’t have minded so much. A film can go against my beliefs on subjects as long as it is honest with it’s own motives. What goes wrong here is the fact that we are allowed a glimpse into a single moment with Lucy and her reactionary boss that completely subverts the peace over violence mantra. By allowing such an easy scene just squeeze in so that the story can smoothly transition into the eventual climax is both lazy and hypocritical. The emotions and viewpoints that Lucy and Jude hold so close to their hearts are too easily changed, but I guess all you need is love.
Right from the start we experience what is in store. After our entry-point with Jude on the beach, introducing Lucy’s character—very reminiscent of Ewan McGregor’s opening from Moulin Rouge!—comes a lovely collaged montage of waves rumbling over scenes to occur later on in the film. These waves are layered with newspaper clippings helping to give an overview of the political barometer of the time period. After this is a nice juxtaposition of Lucy, Jude, and Prudence’s lives as they start their journey in their hometowns, ultimately bringing them together in New York City. It is the event that begins JoJo’s trek that solidified my enthrallment into the film and eased me into a wondering at what could happen next. Unfortunately, the scene of prostitutes follows and jarred me out of my trance, making me conscious of the horrible along with the beautiful.
All the acting is above average, if not superb, and the set pieces meticulously orchestrated. Despite the seemingly shoddy CGI work at times, especially during an underwater/above the water sequence, the visuals are spectacular. Julie Taymor needs credit for the imagination and fearless mentality to even attempt what she has. Before the film, she spoke about how Evan Rachel Wood was 17 at the time they filmed. Turning 20 a few days ago, the movie finally sees the light of day. A lot of work went into the final project and it shows. It is just a shame that the film’s ambitions outweigh what actually shows up onscreen—a whole that doesn’t succeed past the sum of its parts. In the end, even though a disappointment in overall execution, those parts that work are a sight to behold and highly worth experiencing on the big screen, especially having the opportunity to see the world premiere at the Toronto Film Festival.
Across the Universe 7/10 | ★ ★ ★
courtesy of the Toronto International Film Festival