Sunday, April 26, 2020

The Roads Not Taken

Even just limiting things to movies, there's more pressing things to gripe about than how studios are making films available, but, really, folks, why are you using rather than straight Vimeo, which owns them? Vimeo has an app on Roku, so we don't have to dink around with casting or putting the laptop somewhere that the HDMI cable can reach, let alone having to create a new account for every single movie we rent this way. This could have been easy, but instead I'm getting frustrated, which probably doesn't put me in the most receptive of moods for the movie.

Also kind of petty, but also kind of funny: This film starts with titles over a blank screen and someone buzzing at the door and a phone ringing, putting the viewer in a weird "is the movie starting or should I be checking the door or something. I wonder, idly, to what extent the fact that movies like this are mostly going to be seen in living rooms rather than theaters plays into making choices like that. I suppose it could be something that director Sally Potter just didn't consider at all, although maybe it could be a gambit to make the viewer feel more part of what's going on.

The Roads Not Taken

* * (out of four)
Seen 25 April 2020 in Jay's Living Room (Somerville Theatre Virtual Screening Room, internet)

For a movie about a (presumably) talented writer imagining the different ways his life could have gone, The Roads Not Taken shows an almost stunning lack of creativity. Everyone seems to be doing their job well enough that one can get through its 85 minutes easy enough, but it eventually feels like a whole lot of set-up for an ending that feels like the film's first truly clever moment, but not enough.

The writer in question is Leo (Javier Bardem) who may have been great once but who is in severe and early cognitive decline for a man in his 50s, though still living on his own in a New York apartment and reliant on nurse Xenia (Branka Katic). When he doesn't answer his door or the phone in the morning, his daughter (Elle Fanning) rushes to see if he's okay before a planned day of appointments at the dentist and optometrist. His mind is seemingly even further afield than usual, drifting not so much to his past but to alternate histories - one in which he married first love Delores (Salma Hayek), and another where he went off to Greece to write and never returned.

Or, perhaps, Leo was not actually great, and he's keenly aware of this, which is why even the version of his life where he is a successful writer has him spending all day at a picturesque seaside bar, blocked, unable to think of an ending, and chasing after a girl young enough to be his daughter. That's the best reason for him to imagine himself not just a cliché but a miserable one, while his other alternate history is also defined by tragedy and failure. There are moments when one can see the various threads informing each other, with the various Leos seemingly grappling with the issues of the other timelines and how to apply them to the present circumstances, but it's difficult to get invested; Leo is so completely a blank slate that it's hard to give much thought on his history diverging, especially into such stock scenarios.

Those situations don't ask much of the cast. Elle Fanning gets the most time to do decent work - her daughter is able to exist independently of Leo in a way other characters can't - and there's never a moment when she's not believable even if she's also sometimes apparently trying to compensate for how simple her story is by being very emphatic. Laura Linney shows up as an ex-wife who is on the bad side of the line of being a caricature, with Salma Hayek just on the other side. Milena Tscharntke sometimes seems to play into how Anni is half a conversation Leo is having with himself a bit, which is interesting, and Waleed Akhtar has a nice scene or two toward the end. Nobody slacks off, but nobody has much to work with, either.

As for Javier Bardem, he spends much of the movie giving the sort of performance that looks good because one knows he's a charismatic, intelligent person and countering that seems like it should be such an effort, but it may just be doing the same tics and generally holding one's face slack so that it seems heroic to get a few words out late. He's good enough in the other timelines, but they're probably characters he could do in his sleep, and there's never really a sense of the Leos being the same guy in different circumstances. It's capable work, but deliberately non-engrossing at some points and too-familiar at others.

It's not bad to look at, at least - director Sally Potter and cinematographer Robbie Ryan do a nice job of contrasting the open, warm vistas in Spain and Greece with the cramped and unwelcoming locations in New York City, with a sequence inside a warehouse store framed to emphasize the horror of being pulled through a world that one is no longer equipped to process, with a sequence of Leo lost in the city at night seeming different - still confused, but less frightened. Potter is also one of the film's editors, and they do a fair job of jumping between timelines in a way that makes the film move smoothly. They tend to only put the most basic building blocks of the story out there for both father and daughter, but it leads to a final scene that hints at much more potential and heft, enough that one wonders if Potter came up with it and built backwards.

A good finish means that The Roads Not Taken is not a waste of time; there's too much talent there for it to completely flame out. There is just not much that can be done when a film has an interesting idea but no interesting details, and this is just bland as can be in that regard.

Also on EFilmCritic

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