by Ken B.
Here is a movie that could have, or maybe should have, been thirty minutes shorter, yet I still recommend it. Across the Universe is a very strange movie. It is not a musical, but it needs music to exist. You see, every plot point is either initiated, expressed, or concludes with a cover of a Beatles song. There are around 30 songs spread throughout this 133 minute film. I really liked the whole idea. However, as a Beatles fan, perhaps I was more forgiving of the film’s storytelling and pacing errors than a more impartial reviewer would have.
There are a few different stories at play here, but the one that both gets the most screen time and was the most promoted is a love story. Jude (Jim Sturgess) is a young Liverpool based worker at a shipyard who sets off to America in the late 1960s when he believes he has located his biological father, Wes Hubert (Robert Clohessy), who is a maintenance man at Princeton University. Jude quickly becomes friends with a student named Max (Joe Anderson), and while at Joe’s house over Thanksgiving, falls for Max’s sister Lucy (Evan Rachel Wood).
Max drops out of school and moves to New York City with Jude. They move to an apartment which is a counterculture hub, headed up by Joplin-esque singer Sadie (Dana Fuchs). Also in residence are Prudence (T.V. Carpio), a high school cheerleader who ran away from her Ohio hometown (also, when she moved in, she came in through the bathroom window), and Jojo (Martin Luther McCoy), a guitarist who moved to the city following his son’s death.
There is a particular visual prerogative to Across the Universe. DP Bruno Delbonnel does a remarkable job shooting the film – everything from a wide shot on a beach that opens the film to a surreal sequence at a draft office with computer animated Uncle Sams reaching out for a drafted Max while reciting the lyrics to “I Want You (She’s So Heavy)” to Eddie Izzard playing Mr. Kite, appearing in an LSD fueled circus, complete with blocky drawings of animals to a rooftop performance that ends the movie.
By far the largest and most notable problem with the film is the pacing. Apparently, during post-production, a version of the movie with a runtime of around 98 minutes was greeted warmly by test audiences (the theatrical release was negatively received), but director Julie Taymor objected to a recut of the film without her consent. While I can’t comment on that edit of the film, I imagine a shorter movie wouldn’t have hurt much. Most of the second act moves glacially.
The acting is solid but not very noteworthy. Sturgess is relatable enough as our romantic hero, but Wood is arguably given the most to go through as a character. She handles it well enough. But in a movie like Across the Universe, dramatic acting is secondary to singing, and the answer there is that it is neither explicitly bad nor explicitly good. Only nitpickers will have real qualms about the singing, but only the easily persuaded will consider them anything other than fulfilling what’s required.
Across the Universe is a good movie, thunderous with a highly active imagination, spilling over visuals, but also forgetting the importance of a certain degree of brevity in an adventurous endeavor like this. I am giving it three stars because I enjoy Beatles music and how it was treated, and films with an arthouse undertone. Consider a downgrade if one or both of those things make you want to throw an apple at a movie projector.