September 20, 2007

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Across the Universe (PG-13)
For the benefit of Julie Taymor there will be an entertaining if not entirely successful re-imagineering of Beatles songs in Across the Universe, a tale of love, social change and drugs that make lines like “I am the egg man” seem logical, set in the 1960s.

Jude (Jim Sturgess) is a dreamy-eyed, floppy-haired young man from Liverpool who stares moodily out at the ocean before he begins to tell us about a girl who came to stay. Her name is Lucy (Evan Rachel Wood) and, far from being in the sky with diamonds, she is at the prom in America. Post-prom, her boyfriend heads off to the Army and Lucy contemplates how it won’t be long before she belongs to him.

Elsewhere, Jude, a dock worker in Liverpool, heads to America to find his dad, who works at Princeton, and eventually meets Max (Joe Anderson), who is a student there. With a little help from his friends, Max and Jude have some booze, smoke some pot and play some pool. Max takes Jude home for Thanksgiving, where Jude meets Lucy, a girl who keeps calling him back again.

Despite that, the boys head to New York, where they rent a room from the singer Sadie (Dana Fuchs). When Lucy discovers that a reunion with her boyfriend indeed will be long, she comes to visit for the summer. The group eventually grows to include Prudence (T.V. Carpio), a gay woman from Ohio seeking a girl who will respond to her wanting to hold her hand, and JoJo (Martin Luther McCoy), a guitar player from Detroit who watches his neighborhood get torn apart by riots, decides to let it be and then splits. The group meets a San Francisco poet named Dr. Roberts (Bono) and enjoys some psychedelics while he explains that I am you and you are me and we are all together on a hippie bus to Timothy Leary’s house.

Of course, this tie-dyed frolic doesn’t last and soon Uncle Sam is saying that he wants Max and Max winds up in the middle of the Southeast Asian helter skelter, after which he contemplates the happiness of a warm gun. Meanwhile, with war and social protest and a social protest organizer coming between Jude and Lucy, is love all they need?

Hey, Jude, don’t make it bad.

Yes, that was stilted. And that’s a bit how the movie plays, with Prudence coming in through the bathroom window and a canvas of bleeding strawberries forever and Jude contemplating if he’ll still be at the docks when he’s 64. But, like some live-action modern art installation, the same over-the-top winking and nudging that makes the movie feel fake and a bit stagy at times also makes it fascinating to watch. The colors are brilliant, the songs are entertainingly covered and the actors are appealing. Carpio turns “I Wanna Hold Your Hand” into a pretty decent torch song; “I Want You (She’s So Heavy)” rather terrifyingly illustrates Max’s transformation into an Army grunt. The songs and pictures that don’t directly reference the Beatles song playing at the time often make an indirect reference to the time period overall — Sadie is Janis Joplin lite, JoJo is Jimi Hendrix-y. And, yes, there are Hair-like elements to the whole production but not even the weird appearance of Eddie Izzard as Mr. Kite (telling us that there will be a show tonight with lots of “stuff”) is as campy as, say, “Aquarius.”

What really makes this movie work, of course, is that, as obvious as this is going to sound, The Beatles’ music is really good. It can stand up to all this heavy tweaking. It is both evocative of the period and also timeless. And whether it’s Bono in a bad mustache or Joe Cocker dressed like a pimp or Salma Hayek as a sexy nurse, no amount of costumeiness can completely trump how enjoyabe it is just to hear the songs. Forget love; The Beatles, as it turns out, are all you need. B

Rated PG-13 for some drug content, nudity, sexuality, violence and language. Directed by Julie Taymor and written by Dick Clement and Ian La Frenais from a story by Julie Taymor, Clement and La Frenais, Across the Universe is two hours and 13 minutes long and is distributed in limited release by Sony Pictures Releasing. The movie is scheduled to open wide on Friday, Sept. 21.