A prurient taste for Penthouse Magazine and red-headed nursemaids? The Theory of Everything

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Stephen Hawking is a bit of a pig (with apologies to our swine brethren). At least that is one takeaway from The Theory of Everything, James Marsh’s biopic of A Brief History of Time‘s famed physicist author.

Despite (or perhaps because of) the profound physical limitations that ALS (“Lou Gehrig’s Disease”) imposed on his keen, unearthly scientific intellect, Hawking apparently always remained a bit of a 1960s Cambridge “lad” with a prurient taste for Penthouse Magazine and red-headed nursemaids.

This aspect of Hawking’s personality isn’t as prominent in the film as that lead-in might suggest, but it still stands in stark relief to the thirty-year devotion his first wife Jane offers him, from his early days struggling with the disease through the publication of his seminal work. Jane doesn’t suffer silently, though, as she herself is depicted as toying with an extra-marital dalliance with her church choir director (sweetly underplayed by Stardust‘s Charlie Cox), whom she later marries. (Someday, someone has to make a movie about how many trysts start off in the church choir.) Marsh, working from a screenplay by Anthony McCarten based on Jane’s own Travelling to Infinity: My Life with Stephen, does not shy from showing Hawking as a flawed but brilliant man.

The best weapon in Marsh’s cinematic arsenal is Eddie Redmayne (Les Miserables) in a jaw-droppingly transformational performance as Hawking. Redmayne, never showy in that “I’m not an animal!” Elephant Man way, immerses himself … no, subsumes himself … in Hawking’s evolutionary physicality, from the occasional stutter step and cramped hand of his early 20s to the fetal crab-like nature of his present life. It is astonishing. Yet, the impish light never leaves Redmayne’s eyes, conveying Hawking’s exceptional genius, when the script fails to give us much scientific substance behind his discoveries.

In general, the Hollywood biopic is a flawed genre, cursed from its inception to cram a lifetime into two-plus hours. People become ciphers, reduced to a CliffsNotes existences, as hairstyles and fashion choices and home furnishings magically change around them, decade by decade.

Like such recent examples as Helen Mirren in The Queen or Michelle Williams in My Life with Marilyn (or even Judi Dench in Philomenablech), Redmayne rises above a predictable “based on true events” script that tends to telegraph its punches. Look! Young Stephen drops a piece of chalk. Look! Hunky choir director is making goo-goo eyes at his new mezzo soprano Jane Hawking. Look! Marital tension boils over at a garden party Christening where Stephen’s parents confront both son and daughter-in-law separately about their life choices, foreshadowing their ultimate implosion. Redmayne so fully inhabits Hawking’s inner/outer life that we (mostly) look past the workmanlike narrative.

Every bit Redmayne’s acting match is Felicity Jones (Northanger Abbey) as Stephen’s long-suffering wife. It is to Jones’ credit that she never descends into self-pity or martyrdom, but rather reveals a multi-layered person whose path has brought a mixed bag of reward, betrayal, fulfillment, and disappointment. The script saddles Redmayne and Jones throughout with a half-baked debate over science versus spirituality, unfortunately never resolved in any particularly meaningful way.

Rounding out the cast are David Thewlis as Stephen’s long-term faculty mentor and a criminally under-used Emily Watson (oh, I love her) as Jane’s patient mother.

The film is beautifully shot in gauzy light, like a box of old photographs. The approach suits the woozy material well, which spans thirty-or-so years, from the early 1960s to the mid-1980s. The filmmakers generally get the feel and look of each decade right – Cambridge in the Hawkings’ early days serves as a kind of shabby Camelot fairy tale setting, replaced later by garish, clunky 80s environs as their marriage crumbles.

I wish that I loved The Theory of Everything. It is supremely well-acted, but ultimately the conventionality of the narrative hurts the film’s overall impact. I found myself deeply moved by Redmayne and Jones but left a bit cold where Mr. Hawking himself is concerned. Perhaps that is the film’s point after all (though not a groundbreaking revelation) … all genius comes at a price, and the act of discovery is often much more interesting than the final summation.

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Reel Roy Reviews is now a book! Thanks to BroadwayWorld for this coverage – click here to view. In addition to online ordering at Amazon or from the publisher Open Books, the book currently is being carried by Bookbound, Common Language Bookstore, and Crazy Wisdom Bookstore and Tea Room in Ann Arbor, Michigan and by Green Brain Comics in Dearborn, Michigan. My mom Susie Duncan Sexton’s Secrets of an Old Typewriter series is also available on Amazon and at Bookbound and Common Language.

“Are humans more concerned with having than being?” Lucy (2014)

[Image Source: Wikipedia]

[Image Source: Wikipedia]

We finally got around to seeing Lucy, the Luc Besson-directed thriller starring Scarlett Johansson and Morgan Freeman. (We do have a dog named Lucy, so I’m not sure why we didn’t get to it sooner? Hmmm…)

WTF, ‘Murica?

I don’t know if I’m horrified or delighted (or both) at the financial success enjoyed domestically this summer by this loopy, French existentialist, nonsensical genre mash-up of the much superior Bradley Cooper-starrer Limitless, John Travolta’s Phenomenon, the little-seen (and also superior) Chris Evans-flick Push, and Besson’s own La Femme Nikita (unnecessarily remade as Point of No Return with Bridget Fonda) and The Fifth Element (with Bruce Willis and Milla Jovovich).

Don’t get me wrong – I was totally entertained during Lucy‘s blessedly expeditious 90-minute running time, but, every fifteen minutes or so, the script seems to jettison its own internal narrative logic (let alone anything remotely connected to real-world physics, biology, information technology, or screenwriting 101) as it careens toward a denouement that makes the final moments of, say, Stanley Kubrick’s 2001 or Darren Aronofsky’s The Fountain or Terrence Malick’s, well, anything look like the gritty, grounded urban dramas of Sidney Lumet.

The set-up (bear with me) is that Lucy (Johansson) is a college student (I think?) in Taipei (I think?) who has a one-week (?) stand with Richard, a skeezy beau wearing a cheap straw cowboy hat and awful, rose-colored (really.) wrap-around Bono-style sunglasses. They have an interminably cutesy exchange outside a fancy hotel as Richard tries to convince Lucy to deliver to a guest one of those stainless steel briefcases that only seem to exist in Hollywood movies (or holding poker chips at the last-minute holiday gift display at JCPenney).

Richard (Dick, get it?) ends up handcuffing Lucy to said suitcase (ah, bondage – is this a movie about female empowerment?), and shoves her into the hotel lobby, at which time an army of black-suited, indeterminately Asian mobsters swarm about her, put her through h*ll, shove some space-rock crack-esque drugs in her tummy, pop her on a plane, and leave her in a third-world dungeon somewhere. After she is brutalized by her captors, the bag of purple diamelles or whatever burst in her stomach, giving her the ability to increasingly access the remotest reaches of her brain.

See, we mere mortals access only 10% – which is why we make stupid decisions like watching Keeping Up with the Kardashians or wearing PajamaJeans or eating Funyuns – but Lucy gets all kinds of nifty skills, like telepathy and computer programming and rocking stylish mini-dresses, when her cerebral cortex goes into overdrive.

Besson helps us neanderthals in the audience follow along by periodically flashing black and white percentages on the screen – 10%, 20%, 30%, 99% – not to mention random images of cheetahs chasing gazelles and Quest for Fire-extras discovering, er, fire. Deep, man.

Spoiler alert! As Lucy gets more and more authority over the idiots populating this Big Blue Marble, she starts to quite literally evaporate because her cells are multiplying at such a rapid rate her body can’t hold her consciousness (I think?). The film then becomes a race against time as a) Lucy heads to Europe to track down the remaining shipments of the glowy purple narcotics; b) hooks up with a hunky hawk-nosed French cop; c) runs away from and, inexplicably, does not use her super-brain to blow up the horde of angry Asian mobsters; d) has a sit-down with sage old wry Morgan Freeman doing that sage old wry Morgan Freeman thing as an academic who has been conveniently narrating the film up to this point to explain this whole “we only use 10% of our brains” nonsense; and, e) after surreally meeting our collective ancestor “original” cave-monkey-person Lucy, figures out how to ensure her own immortality by taking the form of a star-festooned … thumb drive.

(One could argue that the way the film ends actually tees up Johansson’s disembodied voice in Her. Heck, Lucy’s last message to humanity appears as a text on a cell phone. Just think about that! Minds blown. 🙂 )

All that said, I rather enjoyed myself at this idiotic movie.

Why? Besson is an incredibly stylish filmmaker – alongside Michael Mann (Heat, Collateral, The Insider) and Ridley Scott (Blade Runner, Thelma and Louise, Gladiator), he is arguably one of the most. The visuals in Lucy POP!, with brilliant use of grime and fluorescent light, color contrast and international locales, jazzed with trippy intercuts and hyperkinetic pacing.

The wisest choices of all, though, were made in casting Johansson and Freeman who wink at the junk material without ever condescending to it. Freeman especially seems to be having a good time with what could have been a thankless role, both befuddled and surprised that his life’s theoretical work has apparently come to blazing life in the form of Lucy.

Johansson didn’t used to be my cup of tea. Not sure why. However, I’ve grown to appreciate her – both as a performer and a human – more and more, and, in Lucy, I loved every note of the fear, anger, inquisitiveness, exasperation, and (finally) magnanimous indifference she wrings from the paper-thin script.

Like any popcorn film that tries too hard to say something so philosophical, Lucy ends up not saying much at all. There is a zippy line early in the film that holds such promise but is never revisited: “Are humans more concerned with having than being?” I’m not sure that intriguing question is ever actually answered. In the end, Lucy only works as a movie if you don’t think about it too much…which is pretty ironic for a film that ostensibly is about using every last bit of our brains.

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Reel Roy Reviews is now a book! Thanks to BroadwayWorld for this coverage – click here to view. In addition to online ordering at Amazon or from the publisher Open Books, the book currently is being carried by Bookbound, Common Language Bookstore, and Crazy Wisdom Bookstore and Tea Room in Ann Arbor, Michigan and by Green Brain Comics in Dearborn, Michigan. My mom Susie Duncan Sexton’s Secrets of an Old Typewriter series is also available on Amazon and at Bookbound and Common Language.