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marcie’s idiot pick of the week: across the universe

Posted by rollinsloane on 7 November 2007

Go ahead and get comfortable, kids, ‘cause this is a long one, perhaps the first of several posts. Oh, boy, where to even begin on Across the Universe, the Beatles musical not by Cirque de Soleil. Being an unrepentant huge fan (italics hers) of such soapy musical/’love-is-awesome’ classics as Moulin Rouge and RENT, my brain-dead roommate Marcie just knew this was up her goddamn alley and hell if she wasn’t going to drag somebody along (down) with her. Want to hear a bunch of saccharine pop covers of some of the greatest non-saccharine pop songs of all time? Yeah, me neither.

Obviously inspired by the soundtrack to I Am Sam and the social analysis of Forrest Gump (history has fun costumes!), screenwriting team Dick Clement and Ian Le Frenais (Flushed Away, if you care) fashioned a Beatles musical/spiritual ode to the pill-poppin, free-lovin, times-are-a-changin 60s. Director and obvious musical fan Julie Taymor took it from there, delivering social commentary by way of nostalgia with the subtly of a sledgehammer. Does a girl come in through a bathroom window? You bet.

But definitely E for Effort. The artistic team pulled out all the stops – albeit logic included – to deliver a bright palette of ‘fun’ popcorn eye candy, and no movie’s a failure that prompts so much personal reaction. Why just fail when you can go down in flames?

[Beware, there are plenty of spoilers below. But don’t worry. I’m just sparing you the $11 you would have wasted (Marcie, I am going to kill you) to sit through the damn thing.]

Welcome to the New York City high-rise of a bunch of young-uns with some familiar names livin la vie boheme. There’s Jude (relative newcomer Jim Sturgess, certainly cast for his Ewan McGregor impression), a Liverpool-ian dock-worker come to America for a great adventure; Lucy (Evan Rachel Wood, Thirteen), a sweet-hearted Mama’s girl whose varsity-jacket boyfriend goes off to play dutiful soldier; Max, Lucy’s rule-hating Princeton drop-out of a brother; Prudence (T.V. Carpio – yep, a girl named TV), a small-town lesbian turned general hippie; Sadie (Dana Fuchs), a boho-chic (and yes, sexy) Janis Joplin-styled singer; Jojo (Martin Luther), Sadie’s Hendrix-type guitarist and a NY fugitive of the Detroit riots. I’m actually surprised they resisted turning Max into Dylan.

Only a few people acquit themselves comfortably. Prudence delivers a rather sweet version of “I Want to Hold Your Hand” from a stand of empty high school bleachers, and Bono, as Dr. “I Am the Walrus” John actually lets loose an unprecedented display of charisma. Frida star Salma Hayek contributes a cameo as, what else, an insanely hot nurse. Fuchs and Luther add some much needed grit to the action (btw, did they really get a man named Martin Luther to play the only black character in a movie ostensibly about social unrest? Really?).

But the only performer who looks vaguely aware of the shitshow he’s involved in is British comedian Eddie Izzard, having a ball as the ringleader of some circus-themed drug trip. His crisply dry version of “For the Benefit of Mr. Kite” is, dare I say it, more entertaining than the original.

eddie izzard ringmaster across the universe

Alright, I’ll admit it – Julie Taymor’s the woman who successfully put The Lion King on Broadway, for christ’s sake. Obviously she knows a thing or two about visuals. Even her creative version of Shakespeare’s Titus demonstrates her thorough comfort with bright cartoony colors and Terry Gilliam-style animation. In Universe, she and cinematographer Bruno Delbonnel (A Very Long Engagement, Infamous) pull off some stunners:

– Prudence swooning over her fellow cheerleader as a team of football players dance a tunnel of slow-motion tackles around her.

– A joyful bowling alley sequence to “I’ve Just Seen a Face,” everyone pastel-colored and sliding along the greased-up alleyways just like you always wanted to

– Uncle Sam (singing “I Want You (So Bad)”) reaching off a recruitment poster to basically eat Max alive. The rest of that sequence was pretty damn innovative, too, featuring square-jawed army recruiters packaging draftees like factory cogs and ending with the bombastic picture of new soldiers, still in their white inspection boxers, carting a giant Statue of Liberty on their backs to the lyrics of “she’s so heavyyyyyyy….” I mean, hell, I laughed.

– A group of women falling backwards into a wide expanse of ocean, their hair long and black and their bodies naked and painted white in visual allusion to the famous Vietnam War photograph of the crying little girl, arms outstretched (although I’ll admit, when I saw the trailer, I thought they were Yokos).

– A “Strawberry Fields” number that represents the Vietnam dead as bleeding-heart strawberries on a white canvas.

strawberries canvas across the universe

But it was Taymor’s strange love affair with computer-generated collage effects that downgraded 2002s Frida from a decently moving biopic to a high-schooler’s tacky screensaver. The loony fantasy effects here (meant to indicate drug use or just the extreme giddiness of PG-13 romance?) looked like an experimental 90s video game. Perhaps Taymor simply has a tendency for narrative heavy-handedness:

– An opening credit sequence of Evan Rachel Wood’s face pasted over a montage of civil rights race riots pasted over a horizon of crashing waves to the tune of “Helter Skelter”? Three visual layers that neither make narrative sense nor look good together crammed like a Photoshop mistake in the movie’s first two minutes. Get this director back to the stage.

– Several “Vietnam battles” that came straight out of Rushmore’s high-school play re-enactment.

– Several woeful song sequences, namely Lucy’s too-high, too-slow “If I Fell” (and yes, she falls); Jude’s “Something,” crooned to a naked, sleeping Lucy, supposedly tenderly, but there’s really something cheesy about a grubby artist beside a wall dedicated to erotic sketches of his girlfriend; and “Come Together,” which threw together the most cartoony mix of pimps, hos and chorus-line dancing businessmen this side of Roger Rabbit.

– The concluding performance of ‘All You Need is Love” on a Persian-carpet rooftop, an obvious visual tip of the hat to collaborator Bono’s penchant for singing on rugs. A little music video-ish, no?


“There is no formula for this movie,” claimed Taymor in an interview. Um, wrong. Didn’t I just give her the formula? Moulin Rouge + RENT + ½ Forrest Gump – non-Beatles songs X Terry Gilliam = Across the Universe. And scene.


3 Responses to “marcie’s idiot pick of the week: across the universe”

  1. […] 31 December 2007 by mack Nothing mystifies me more than film critics, and I say that because I’m one of them.  The rapturous praise showered on Paul Thomas Anderson’s promising but ultimately unfulfilling There Will Be Blood like so much fawning tween girl admiration has me ready to take a shotgun to the next film reviewer who feels obliged to use an exclamation mark.   Amid the hypefest, it’s always refreshing to come across a voice of reason, and so I present to you an admirably sober look at a film that actually didn’t realize its powerful full potential.  Thank you Andy Klein of LA’s Citybeat street press.  For this I will at least consider forgiving your positive reception of the travesty that was Across the Universe. […]

  2. […] and plied me into vegetative submission with goblets of cheap pinot noir and assurances that this, unlike Across the Universe, was a Sundance favorite.  Indeed.  Well.  Marcie was right.  All the Real Girls did win an […]

  3. […] from that senile old windbag and I know I can save myself a trip to the Cineplex.  (This is the clinically insane reviewer who mistook Julie Taymor’s Across the Universe for “enchantin… after all). So when Ebert gifted In Bruges with a 4-star crown, my heart sank. I had so wanted to […]

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