Across the Universe, director Julie Taymor's new 60s-era musical featuring songs by the Beatles, opens with two examples: First, "Girl"--you know the one, with the chorus of "ah, girl," followed by the ostentatious sound of toking--sung quietly by a boy on a beach; and next, "Helter Skelter," screeched over a montage of footage from Vietnam and civil rights demonstrations. It's an apt summary of the film to follow.
The first forty minutes or more of the movie is a slight but surprisingly endearing story of boy meets girl--specifically, of "Jude" (Jim Sturgess), a working-class Liverpudlian (of course) transplanted to the U.S., meeting "Lucy" (Evan Rachel Wood), an upper-class American girl a few years his junior. (Yes, there's also a character named "Max," who is at one point advised to be careful with a hammer, and another named "Prudence," who comes in through the bathroom window. "Rita" was evidently too busy handing out parking tickets to make an appearance in the film.)
At its best, Across the Universe is a likable musical revue, a series of showstopping set pieces strung together with a rudimentary stab at plot. Though the dialogue is subgeneric and the character development nonexistent, Taymor finds unexpected life in the Beatles ditties earnestly crooned by her young cast. A lovelorn cheerleader sings "I Wanna Hold Your Hand" as she wanders through an aerial ballet of colliding football players; "I've Just Seen a Face" powers a deliriously choreographed romp in a bowling alley. Even a jingle as familiar as "If I Fell" acquires new depth and resonance when Lucy sings it as she watches Jude with another girl and ponders the risks of letting go her heart.
But already there have been hints of the troubles to come. "Let It Be" is covered beautifully by Broadway regular Carol Woods, but it's accompanied by a cheap, manipulative bid at political relevance: a scene of riots brutally put down, in which a small boy is briefly introduced only to be killed by gunfire. By the time a poster of Uncle Sam singing "I Want You" (a nice touch) segues into a parade of giant G.I.s trampling the jungles of Vietnam as they carry the Statue of Liberty and sing "She's So Heavy," it's clear that all the life and joy of the first half of the film has sunk into the 60s quicksand of protest and psychedelia. Lucy's brother is sent off to bleed in Indochina; she becomes an activist and leaves Jude for a charismatic radical leader. Everyone hops aboard a magic bus so we can be treated to hallucinatory cameos by Bono and Eddie Izzard. Yadda yadda yadda.
It's not merely that we've seen all of this before--though we have, again and again and again, in Hair, Born on the Fourth of July, The Doors, Platoon, The Wall, and dozens of other films--it's that by this time it all seems so tired and juvenile. Is anyone the wiser for seeing "Strawberry Fields" rudely rebranded as a metaphor for the blood-drenched landscape of Vietnam? Do we really need to be treated to an updated variation on Yellow Submarine's Blue Meanies?
Call me small-minded, but in my repressive society there would be a 50-year moratorium on movies about How The Sixties Changed Everything. Yes, it's true that condemning the Vietnam War is not currently the fashion at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue. But as a statement of American pop culture, it's as uncontroversial as--actually, I can't think of anything so uncontroversial. Forrest Gump took on the war, for God's sake. What can there possibly be left to say?
The answer is nothing, and in its latter half, Taymor's film repeats that nothing over and over, with shrill self-satisfaction. There's another war going, as you may have heard, and Taymor evidently thinks that if she stages "Revolution" and "All You Need Is Love" earnestly enough, it may have some bearing on the course of current events. It's a pity. The film is titled, after all, Across the Universe, and while that song's admonition that "nothing's gonna change my world," may exaggerate, it's a pretty safe bet that a heavy-handed Beatles musical isn't going to do the trick.