The concept of Across The Universe is surely high. Granted, Julie Taymor’s assemblage of Beatles tunes via vivacious set pieces doesn’t evince much logic, grafting together plot turns via lyrics that spanned decades. But it does pulse with an oddly dynamic nostalgia, as if the famous “turmoil” of the ’60s — the assassinations and the war in Vietnam, the demonstrations, drugs, and deeply felt passions — might be (re)considered romantic adventures.
But for all the film’s grand ambition — at times it does resemble a trip across the universe — it is also bland, perversely so. (At its worst, the movie offers lyrics as platitudes: all you need is love, I want you so bad, we are all together, you know.) The triteness isn’t for want of exotic ideas or images: these are abundant and colorful. But they are also disconnected and, perhaps most exasperating, gimmicky. The tricks begin with names and places, as if the film is a puzzle offered to serious Beatles fans, a game to figure out. It opens on the wide, pale face of Jude (Jim Sturgess), whose sadness is palpable and strangely winning. Seated on a vast beach against a grey sky, he turns to the camera as it pushes in, slowly. He sings “Girl”: “She’s the kind of girl you want so much it makes you sorry, / Still you don’t regret a single day.” Yes, their romance will be painful and tumultuous, and yes, the film will find a way to tie together all external events to this seemingly personal connection.
From here the film dissolves to emblems of The Era, familiar, even iconographic shots: protests, riots, grim headlines, a disco ball. It’s “Helter Skelter,” of course, sliding into “Hold Me Tight,” sung by Jude in Liverpool and, by crosscutting, the girl who will act as if it’s understood, Lucy (Evan Rachel Wood). While his environs are dark and manly, her dance floor is white and sweet: wearing white gloves, she gazes up into her Ken-doll boyfriend’s eyes and professes her true love, not anticipating, as you do, that his adventure in Southeast Asia will end badly and abruptly.
Meantime, the film proposes, Jude has his own life to sort out. He leaves his job as a dockworker to travel to the States, where he locates his father (Robert Clohessy), a onetime U.S. soldier who shared a fateful night during WWII with his mother (Angela Mounsey). Seeing that his dad is a janitor at Yale, Jude agrees not to disrupt his wife-and-kids-ness, and moves on, rather easily, to a fast friendship with Lucy’s brother Max (Joe Anderson), a soon-to-be college dropout. Following a bout of toking and troublemaking (too obviously performed to “With a Little Help”), the boys run off to New York City, ensuring a bizarre encounter with Joe Cocker (as multiple characters singing a sort-of-medley version of “Come Together”) as well as an assortment of roommates, who enliven the goings-on and offer hints as to what might have been.
Joe Anderson (pictured) as Max
Piled into a fantastic multi-room apartment in Greenwich Village — landladied by Sadie (Dana Fuchs, one of Across the Universe‘s several professional singers) — each of the supporting cast members might have anchored a more compelling movie than the one before you. Lesbian cheerleader Prudence (T. V. Carpio) — who will be instructed to “Come out to play” — first appears walking through a crowd of football players, cavorting, leaping, crashing into one another, a hullabaloo of faceless, uniformed boy bodies. Singing, “Oh please say to me / You’ll let me be your man,” she walks slowly and intently, her gaze fixed on the perfect blond cheerleader who shakes pom-poms across the football field. Being as she’s located in “the Midwest” and it’s the ’60s, Prudence doesn’t have a prayer of catching the blond girl’s eye, and so she takes off, hitchhiking her way to the Village, leaving behind one of the movie’s most dazzling scenes.
Such structural spottiness — great numbers punctuating humdrum character arcs — is hardly unusual in a musical. Still, it’s a special problem for Prudence, whose remaining screen-time is all letdown. In New York, she moves in at Sadie’s, literally entering through a window, as if by complete accident, and embraced by the group as another misfit who will provide appropriate “color” for the whiter than white Max and Jude and Lucy (who makes her way to the city following boyfriend’s demise). As Sadie is a singer with a band, the other “other” is a Jim-Hendrixy super-guitarist Jojo (Martin Luther McCoy) — who is never once told, “Get back to where you once belonged.” He is introduced via Detroit, another of the movie’s magnificent, visually operatic moments. The camera pans and cranes over chaos, with fires, looters, and broken windows serving as bleak background for a young boy, hunched behind a destroyed automobile, just waiting to become the motivation for Jojo’s departure. Indeed, following a gorgeous funeral featuring gospel singers and “Let It Be,” he’s on his way to the city, where he’ll find work in Sadie’s band, love in her arms, and — most tragically — relegation to supporting cast member.
Eddie Izzard (left) as Mr. Kite
Again and again, context is lost to insipid foreground concerns. When Max — who should never have dropped out of school — is drafted, he and his fellow fuckingnewguys are beset by a squad of jarheads (done up in Taymorian puppet-masks), pounding and pushing them into bodily contortions as all sing “I Want You” (a sequence cleverly introduced at the induction center with an Uncle Sam finger-pointing poster). He heads off to war, a land of rice paddies, choppers, and bloody body parts, the Vietnam of U.S. collective memory, lifted and distorted from all those movies and TV images you’ve seen before. Here the absurdity is underlined along with Max’s loss of self. Following his inevitable meltdown, Max is locked into a hospital, where he moans and sweats through “Happiness is a Warm Gun,” attended by a veritable bevy of Salma Hayeks as a scary-sexy nurse.
Max’s crisis of masculinity and conscience is shuffled into Lucy’s dedication to the anti-war movement. When she’s not taking time out for walrus-tripping (with Bono as a carnival-barkerish drug-dispensing “doctor” and Eddie Izzard wasted as a leader of circus-tented pranksters), Lucy’s quandary is crucially connected to her brother’s. But Across the Universe can’t keep all its balls in the air. And so it reverts to Jude and Lucy, as dull a pair of lovers as you could imagine.