Across the Universe
Rated PG-13, 133 min. Directed by Julie Taymor. Starring Evan Rachel Wood, Jim Sturgess, Joe Anderson, Dana Fuchs, Martin Luther McCoy, T.V. Carpio.
REVIEWED By Marjorie Baumgarten, Fri., Sept. 28, 2007
If you aren’t fed up with the literalism of Taymor’s tribute to the music of the Beatles and the zeitgeist of the Sixties by the time a character named Prudence barges into a scene through a bathroom window, then … your threshold for this kind of thing is a lot higher than mine, and you might come away feeling that this film was not a bum trip. Then again, you might know who the walrus is too. Taymor is a grand visualist of the stage (The Lion King) and screen (Titus, Frida), but a born storyteller she is not. In Across the Universe she drapes a few dozen well-known Beatles tunes onto a handful of characters in an attempt to relate something of the cultural crucible in which these songs evolved. However, the tunes follow no chronological progression, going from the early Meet the Beatles! classics to “Helter Skelter” and back again to “If I Fell,” losing the sense of how the progression of current events helped shape the Beatles’ music. The characters include Lucy (Wood), who goes from high school girl pining for her soldier boyfriend in Vietnam while singing “It Won’t Be Long” to free spirit living with her brother, Maxwell (Anderson), and friends in Greenwich Village. Max (who actually wields a hammer in one scene) is a college dropout who’s moved to the city with his new friend Jude (Sturgess) from Liverpool. They share a flat with Sadie (Fuchs), a Janis Joplin avatar whose new boyfriend, JoJo (McCoy), comes not from Tucson, Ariz., but from the riots of Detroit. The aforementioned Prudence (Carpio) has a nice early moment as a small-town lesbian who longs for another cheerleader while singing “I Want to Hold Your Hand” and turning the song’s lusty backbeat into a doleful lament. Across the Universe is frustrating in the way it skirts Sixties tropes and Beatles references that call associations to mind without ever nailing them concretely. Jude, a budding artist, tries to paint a still life but on what does he fixate? If you said an apple (for the name of the Beatles production company), you’d be wrong. It’s a strawberry, of course. And suddenly we’re in “Strawberry Fields Forever.” The film occasionally escapes its deadly literalism, especially during humorous appearances by Eddie Izzard as Mr. Kite, Bono as Dr. Richard, Joe Cocker in several incarnations in “Come Together,” and multiple Salma Hayeks as the mother superior who jumps the gun. Humor is otherwise in short supply, and the film also chooses not to include much in the way of the Beatles’ more sarcastic and jokey tunes. (Certainly it would have been possible for a yellow submarine to have pulled up during those psychedelic underwater sequences. I can’t believe Taymor missed that opportunity.) Across the Universe will have ardent defenders, but in the long run, it will do nothing to infuse life into the current minirevival of movie musicals and is as soft-headed as the wishful refrain “All You Need Is Love.” Maybe that works in real life but not in the movies, sister.