Sunday, November 30, 2014

THE THEORY OF EVERYTHING Gives A Tortured Genius A Tortured Movie

THE THEORY OF EVERYTHING (directed by James Marsh, 2014)

Stephen Hawking is an exceedingly layered, fascinating figure. Given two years to live after his ALS diagnosis in 1963, he survives to this day. His bold, innovative mind took impenetrable concepts and made them palatable to the masses. Despite a deteriorating body that eventually rendered him unable to move more than a few fingers, he accomplished more than most of us ever will standing on our two feet. He guest starred on "The Simpsons."

Or, as "The Theory Of Everything" has it, he did vaguely science-y stuff and was married for a while until he wasn't.

So toothless that it couldn't chew applesauce, this is the bland epitome of why some people can't abide biopics. Genius who changed the world? Check. Physical adversity to overcome? Major check. Love-conquers-all angle to inspire hope? Eh...close enough check.

What's frustrating is how much more the movie could be, with director James Marsh and writer Anthony McCarten instead answering every "choose your own adventure" option by simply cowering in fear. Spanning roughly 30 years of Hawking's life, it plays like a greatest hits collection. We meet him (played by Eddie Redmayne) as a young student at Cambridge, romancing literature student Jane Wilde (Felicity Jones). Soon after, the diagnosis of ALS strikes and his eventual marriage with Jane functions as his anchor as he pursues an all-encompassing theory to explain the universe. As his physical condition worsens and takes a toll on their relationship, we follow the couple until their eventual separation in 1990. 

Inside "The Theory Of Everything" lies at least a half dozen more compelling movies, all itching to burst. Considering it focuses so prominently on the Hawking marriage, perhaps a searing domestic drama about how a seemingly unshakable love can still be pecked away by outside forces. How about more of the nitty gritty of how ALS ravages the body and how a person functions with it decades past his termination date (an astonishing fact that barely registers in the movie). Or don't forget we're dealing with Stephen Hawking here - maybe an abstract dive inside his still functioning and fertile mind and how he arrived at his scientific advances. 

Lets not rush past that last bit. "The Theory Of Everything" is ostensibly about Stephen Hawking. Stephen Hawking. A highly specific man with a highly specific story. As in the hands of Marsh and McCarten, though, it's nothing more than a generic bit of uplift that conveniently happens to be about a name we all know, offering no greater insight into his character or his marriage as it clears a place on the mantle for all the inevitable awards.

"The Theory Of Everything" teases a look into the fire so many times, then quickly turns from the flames and titters away.

Through this lack of committal to any one tone or angle, Marsh dulls the movie's drive, and scenes that should register as emotional high points land with an odd thud. Take the scene when Stephen and Jane decide to separate (we're dealing with plot points of public knowledge, so spoilers be damned). This is the climax of the movie. Up until now, Marsh adopts a theme not unlike "A Beautiful Mind" of love beating the odds. Now that same marriage is falling apart. How will Marsh handle this kink in his otherwise inspirational tale? Will he dive into the complexity of love and human emotion, facing how a marriage can somehow provide strength and wither simultaneously? Craft a mature, layered take on how people who seem destined for each other can also move away from each other?

Such moves would require a more cohesive grasp on story and character. Despite hints peppering the movie that the Hawking marriage was less than perfect, it's never granted deeper attention, and the moment where they separate weirdly just happens, and the movie moves on. It's as if Marsh saw this moment as less of a climax and more of an inconvenience, a real-life moment he must unfortunately face and get past so his movie can return to being a tear-jerker.

Never say the cast doesn't rise to the challenge, though, as Redmayne and Jones single-handedly make it worthy of at least a matinee ticket. Both actors take flat roles (on the page) and invest in them all the legitimacy they can summon. Early scenes of their courtship crackle with life, and Marsh shoots them with a lush passion the tedious back half of the movie can't muster. 

Consider how uniquely difficult their challenges are. As a character, Jane holds the more dynamic arc, but her conflict takes place largely in the background, weighing her loyalty to her husband with the desire to be with another man who can be there for her, and Jones tries her hardest to render this half-written drama compelling.

As for Redmayne, never say he can't do a compelling Stephen Hawking impression. That much is clear. He rises above mere mimicry, however, and utterly transforms. Not only is he required to portray a man with a physical disease, he must gradually convey physical decay, creating subtle, different nuances in Hawking's body language as the movie progresses. By the end, when Hawking loses both the ability to walk and speak, Marsh relies almost entirely on Redmayne's face to tell the story; it's an incredible amount of trust to place in an actor, to require him to embody everything the lead character can't say, and Redmayne absolutely returns the investment.

If only the rest of the movie were as sure-footed, if only it faced challenges instead of tip-toeing around them. Although the universe may or may not be turtles all the way down, one thing's for sure: "The Theory Of Everything" is Oscar bait, all the way down, through and through.

Tuesday, November 18, 2014

The 20 Year Wait For DUMB AND DUMBER TO Isn't As Hard As The Movie

DUMB AND DUMBER TO (directed by Peter and Bobby Farrelly)

We don't fully understand why a dog yawns. Maybe it's in anticipation of something. Maybe it's nervousness. Maybe it's the same as in humans - a sign it's been too long since its last nap. Or maybe it's simply mimicking a behavior of its owner without the faintest clue why. 

"Dumb And Dumber To" is a yawning dog of a movie. For a moment it can be diverting, maybe even entertaining. But then that moment passes and ultimately it's a behavioral oddity with no reason for existing other than fatigue, boredom, or blindly copying what's been done by others.

If nothing else, and this is no small feat, "Dumb And Dumber To" kills nostalgia. We casually enjoy Buzzfeed listicles (48 Things Only A 90s Kid Will Understand, etc) for the base, instant gratification of, "Hey, there's a thing I remember that other people remember too!" And if the listicle connects us to the positive feelings those things inspire, it's because we don't have to face they reality of them head-on, only the version in our minds. Hi-C Ecto Coolers likely tasted of cat urine, but I'll never remember for sure, and when I see pictures of them online, I smile.

Consider the cat urine flung in our faces. Now, today, one full score after the release of the 1994 classic (a word I use sincerely), we have this rehash, made for anyone who thinks Buzzfeed serves a legitimate journalistic purpose. Maybe it's not the movie they dreamed of, but when your eyes are on the rear view mirror, there are gonna be crashes.

Not to go so far to say this new movie is so bad it tarnishes our memory of the first one. That can't happen. We'll always have Aspen. It's that, despite the directorial return of the Farrelly brothers and Jim Carrey/Jeff Daniels giving it their all, "Dumb And Dumber To" appears clueless to what made the original special, leaving the taste of forced mediocrity in our mouths that's death to comedy. 

Things start promisingly enough, as Harry (Daniels) visits Lloyd (Carrey) in the mental hospital he's apparently lived in the past 20 years, culminating in a funny, bold opening salvo that suggests the Farrellys showed up to play, ready to toss pesky things like logic and reason out the window.

Then the guys run into Billy, the blind kid from the original, and quietly sneak up to scare him. Then they push each other in the bushes solely to point and laugh. Then they scream, "Show us your tits!" at a woman speaking on stage.

Unfunny, yes, but more than that. There's an odd, rather uncomfortable meanness coursing through "Dumb And Dumber To" not present in the original. For all the gross-out labels slapped on the Farrelly brothers, one thing keeping their best work from tipping into unremarkable filth is their palpable fondness for their characters. The joke in "There's Something About Mary" wasn't that Ben Stiller caught his balls in the zipper - it's that he didn't deserve to get his balls in the zipper. The joke in "Dumb And Dumber" wasn't, "Aren't these guys pricks?" - it's that they're children dumped into the real world of adults, and the adults act accordingly. 

You need that innocence in the main characters just as you need that realism to erect a wall and push back. Otherwise you just have unrepentant chaos. To put it a different way, Harry and Lloyd in the original movie could accidentally poison a guy with rat poison as a prank. Harry and Lloyd in this new movie would simply poison him because the bottle said "rat poison."

Let us count the ways "Dumb And Dumber To" coulda been different (and better). Maybe follow through on the promise of the opening scene and play it as absurdist farce with no connection to continuity, canon, or the world as we know it. Maybe take the lead of the uproarious gag involving the Mutts Cutts van and offer some kind of meta commentary on unnecessary sequels itself. Maybe, in the very least, force Harry and Lloyd to live as actual people in the current day instead of feeling perpetually stuck in 1994 (for all the flack thrown at "Anchorman 2," it pushed its characters to new, different terrain). 

Carrey and Daniels struggle valiantly, and the mere sight of them in the requisite haircuts is enough to trigger pangs of happiness. Too bad they're stuck like two characters in Luis Buñuel's "The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie," standing before a potentially delicious dinner party, but frustratingly unable to attend.