Where the film falters (at least for cynical me) is in what I would like to dub the Julie & Julia conundrum: a biographical film based on a regular ol’ person’s memoir, a tome that hangs on an oh-my-God-will-you-believe-THIS gimmick that makes great fodder for teary Oprah interviews or saucy segments on The View. In the case of, say, Julie & Julia, Amy Adams’ failed writer seems to declare, “Aw, what the heck! I’m just going to cook a different, fabulous Julia Child recipe every day and blog about it. I have no intention of becoming famous for it and leveraging it as a marketing hook to jump-start a literary career doused in flop sweat. Nope. Not me. I’m authentic.”
In the case of Wild, our protagonist Cheryl Strayed (interesting last name, given the subject matter) implodes after the sudden death of her beloved mother, throwing her marriage and her family and her English major lit aspirations (she’s a feminist because she references Erica Jong? that made me wince) in a garbage can, pouring kerosene on it, and lighting the whole kit and kaboodle on fire as she discovers the joys of sex addiction, heroin addiction, and just plain addiction. What saves her sullen, sputtering butt? Well, she just happens to see a guidebook to walk the Pacific Crest Trail (mind you, this is while sauntering into a drugstore for a pregnancy test ’cause she thinks she’s with child but not sure whose) and then determines that heading on a thousand mile vision quest will heal her soul. Oh, and if you didn’t know how rotten she was at this point, you later learn that she and her brother shoot her mother’s prized horse after mama’s death because they didn’t have the resources to care for it?!?! Um, how about offering it for adoption/rescue? Just a thought.
That preceding paragraph came across sh*ttier than I intended, but I’m leaving it there for all to ponder at will. It’s not this film’s problem, but our reality television/prurient tall tale tell-all culture has me wondering sometimes as to the veracity of stories like this one and the relative ease with which they translate from journal to blog to novel to Academy Award-glittering event film.
Regardless, Jean Marc-Vallee leaves behind any of his TV movie tendencies (see any of Jennifer Garner’s scenes in Dallas Buyers Club) and transforms the source material into cinematic poetry. The film is akin to a “memory play” where the central characters/audience float surreally in and out of present and past, and Vallee has a genius command of music and sound and imagery to evoke the kind of sense memory that snaps one back to happy and not-so-happy moments in time. Vallee and his game cast, which also includes a heart-breakingly luminous Laura Dern as Strayed’s/Witherspoon’s mother, allow for some marvelous bits of situational humor to shine through all the pathos – that is a real gift and essential for a movie like this, which could easily become a dark, cliched slog.
In the end, though, the movie lives or dies on Witherspoon’s epically back-packed shoulders, and her performance is a triumph. As she showed us so many years ago with her brilliant channeling of the What Makes Sammy Run? farce that is American politics (be it national, local, or … student council) in Election, Witherspoon with her jutting jaw, limpid eyes, and tortured/tortuous inner life excels when playing the unlikable. Pick Flick! Her Cheryl Strayed is raw-boned and relatable, someone whose misery has toxified her soul, not to mention anyone else’s within a five-mile radius of her.
Yet, Witherspoon never comes off maudlin, self-pitying, scenery-chewing. Her emotional collapse is chiefly internal (save some awkward heroin-den flashbacks that likely should have been left on the cutting room floor), and her trek along the rugged trail is believable and … kind of inept in its execution. Strayed makes lots of mistakes – think Cast Away in the woods which makes it all the more heroic in the end.
And, as for that horse situation (’cause you totally know THAT is what bothered me endlessly)? Strayed/Witherspoon is haunted by it (think Equus without all the weird Freudian freaky BS), and, as she journeys through California, animal life is a constant. A beautiful fox that very well may be the avatar of her late mother (the CGI was a bit clunky on that otherwise neat concept), an alpaca that she comes across in the wood (yeah, you read that correctly, but it leads to one of the film’s sweetest moments when she finds the grandma/grandson pair who care for the creature), little tree frogs that visit her in the night, and a whimsical encounter with a caterpillar. I’m sure I’m reading what I want to here, but Strayed’s/Witherspoon’s last words in the film are: “My life – like all lives – is mysterious, irrevocable, and sacred.” Damn right.
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I haven’t seen this one yet, but the comparison to Julie and Julia was really helpful. That movie REALLY frustrated me. It should have only followed the life of Julia! It also puts the joke that Tina Fey made at the Golden Globes in context! 🙂 Totally agree about the horse problem. Grrrrr….
yeah, I really disliked Julie & Julia, especially as time went by – I felt like it was a marketing ploy for the Julia Child estate. I preferred this movie, but I still feel like it all was a bit improbable. and I didn’t put this in my review, but there was a LOT of gratuitous nudity, which always seems completely unnecessary to me
i saw this, and loved the mother character and the little boy with grandma the best, made the movie all worthwhile. hard for me not to see reese as a cute blonde no matter what she went through in this and her close encounters with some of the men, while alone, scared me from the female perspective. great review –
Thanks, Beth! I agree – those were the highlights for me too. That little boy was darling and heartbreaking – loved her interaction with him
I really like the way you use the term “cinematic poetry”, and completely agree. This is what I felt when watching it too. I think the character of Cheryl is flawed and we have to be careful not to judge the film on the way we feel about the protagonist. I think she ultimately is going to divide audiences depending on who they are. Good review!
Thanks for the kind words and the clarification! Appreciate you commenting!!
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wow…I love that final quote…nudity and sex-capades not my cup of tea though! but reese can deliver often via superlative acting…and sometimes not! I am intrigued I think????? due to the inclusion of course of other species whom I understand much more easily than I do humans and their angst? who exactly is WILD…the cute little unleashed blonde…or the animals? am I mature enough to watch the blonde gone WILD? or will she bore me?
I agree with you. I think you will like aspects of this, especially once it finally gets where it’s going. It’s a strange film, and I’m still not entirely sure how I felt about it. As for the title, I’m not sure who or what it’s about. Her, her life, the world, the environment. I’m not sure how much longer it will be in theaters, so it may be one you’d enjoy seeing better when it’s on TV
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