A friend years ago decided to go on a cross-country hitchhiking journey as a way of finding the "truths" denied him by materialist society. He invited me along: Big Kerouac and Dylan fans, we talked the rebel talk and the ill-defined expedition would have been our way of walking the walk -- in the end I played Truffaut to his Godard and pussied out, and haven't seen the fellow since. Occasionally I wonder whether he found the enlightenment that haunted so many of our conversations, or if he took to the open road only to get himself uselessly killed. I look back at it with nostalgic romanticism and suspicion, and how I wish Sean Penn had a similarly conflicting attitude in Into the Wild, his own telling of a young man's vagabond fantasy. The source is John Krakauer's best-selling account of Chris McCandless, a Jack London-besotted, 22-year-old Emory University grad who in 1990 burned his money and documents and took to the wide, open spaces on a "spiritual adventure." McCandless trekked through the Southwest, North Dakota, and California en route to Alaska, where the hunger-ravaged body was found in a school bus stalled in the frozen tundra, a great epiphany reaching him along with death. This is a plot for Herzog, but Herzog already magnificently desiccated man's search for Eden for smugness, lunacy and dark rapture in Grizzly Man, and Gus Van Sant already envisioned the wanderer's yearning for cosmic evaporation in Gerry. Penn opts for galloping horses and Eddie Vedder's moaning.
McCandless (played, appealingly enough, by Emile Hirsch) is introduced from above as a dot amid the vast majestic whiteness of the snowy North, but Penn's camera is hardly Olympian. From The Indian Runner to The Pledge, the main characteristic of his directorial work is his unquestioning closeness to his material and characters -- in its need to get hungry, wet and cold along with the protagonist, the picture feels like an account of the filmmaker's own exploration of nature during the course of production. The lack of distancing is frequently disastrous: The "industrious little fucker" at the center is seen as purity incarnated, a beatific, backpacking colleague of such insulated, "phonies"-hating na´fs as Salinger's Holden Caulfield and Dustin Hoffman's Benjamin Braddock. McCandless's integrity naturally goes unnoticed by his sold-out parents (William Hurt, Marcia Gay Harden), but is appreciated (no, revered) by the ramblers he meets along the way, from a RV-driving hippie couple (Brian Dierker, Catherine Keener) to a jailbait songster (Kristen Stewart) to a widowed octogenarian (Hal Holbrook). (Vince Vaughn was never a more welcome sight than as the wheat farmer who cuts through this dewy-eyed idolatry by mock-coughing "Society! Society!") The "getting of wisdom" allows for an ample variety of landscapes, and, if Penn's eye for beauty is mostly trite (cathedral lighting ladled on tree trunks, golden sunsets seen out of a boxcar), a good deal of imagery is splashing-the-lens visceral, caught by the splendid cinematographer Eric Gautier with the offhand glow he lent The Motorcycle Diaries. Sadly, Into the Wild also shares with that film the kind of insipid hero-worship that traps the subject in wax. Reverence kills as decidedly as starvation, but, alas, not as quickly.
The Kingdom is being sold as a "timely" work, yet its audience-inflaming strategies reach way back, betraying the unmistakable mentality of '80s action-movies (the giveaway is the opening passage with a baseball game in an American compound in Saudi territory pulverized by Qutbian extremists -- Chuck Norris in Invasion U.S.A., pound by pound). The culprit is some "Osama wannabe," the authorities are too wimpy to take action so a FBI Mister Cool (Jamie Foxx) takes it upon himself to bring justice to Riyadh, with his team of experts (Jennifer Garner, Jason Bateman, Chris Cooper) cruising through the streets like conquistadors. The volatile territory (dubbed a "jungle" and, in a Cooperish drawl, "a bit... like... Mars") proves a challenge to the heroes, though there's help from Ashraf Barhom, who, as a sympathetic Saudi colonel, gets to trade bits of (Yankee, natch) pop culture banter with Foxx in an attempt by director Peter Berg to grab a bit of the Hawksian professionalism of producer-mentor Michael Mann. Berg may have acted in Collateral, but the jiggling, "documentary" rattle of his camera is the exact opposite of Mann's respect for the image: To him, there's no real difference between choreographing a bloody jihadist skirmish and a gridiron match. The Kingdom is big on parallel editing -- cutting back and forth between Foxx talking to his little boy and Barhom tucking in his son signals "solidarity" while a line echoed on both sides of the divide stands for "ambiguity," both embarrassingly spurious when most of the energies are so obviously channeled into the shooting of faceless, dark-skinned bad guys. Like the conflict it raids for faux-inquisitive thrills, the film is a doomed mission.
Confession: I'm not a Beatles man. Guess that makes me an Elvis man, as the saying goes, but I'm really a Rolling Stones man. Anyway, the point is that Julie Taymor's Across the Universe already has a couple of strikes going against it for me, but I doubt even ardent Fab Four fans will be pleased with this rubbishy kitschfest. Some 30 Beatles songs are used for a flabby kaleidoscope of '60s upheavals that, with a thin-voiced cast whacked by Taymor's decorative Broadway pizzazz, feels bizarrely like a production of Rent staged by Ken Russell. Fearfully winsome characters are called Jude, Lucy and JoJo, and the small disasters keep coming: "I Wanna Hold Your Hand" is a baby-dyke's lament and "With a Little Help From My Friends" stands for Ivy-League bonhomie, "Let It Be" is sung amid race riots while "I Want You" provides animated Uncle Sam posters. The arias are so wispy that it's a relief when someone spikes the punch with LSD and nutty Bono is brought out for "I Am the Walrus"; Joe Cocker and Eddie Izzard aren't so lucky in their cameos, but Salma Hayek repays her Frida director with a bit of impish cloning nearly as nifty as Mila Jovovich's in that new Resident Evil thing. A baby-boomer masturbatory center, Across the Universe ultimately is far less stirring than Romance & Cigarettes -- John Turturro's clunky karaoke is more human than Taymor's airbrushed lip-synching.
Reviewed October 7, 2007.