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Across the Universe

An Invitation to a Celebration, Best Refused

Julie Taymor’s latest would be better suited to the stage than screen, where its lavishly choreographed song-and-dance numbers and elaborate sets would easily overshadow its unexceptional story and needless indulgences. We’ve all heard the one about the wild children of the 60s who rejected the stodgy conservatism of their parents’ generation and embraced revolution -- at least for a time. Re-imagining that story as a musical set entirely to the music of the Beatles (and performed by the likes of Bono and Joe Cocker) is ambitious but, in the end, a noble failure.

John Lennon was nearly deported in 1972, after his brazen antiwar activism aroused the ire of then-President Richard Nixon. He was spared that indignity, but Jude (Jim Sturgess), the working-class, Liverpudlian hero of Across the Universe, isn’t so lucky. Despite his own distaste for revolution, Jude gets caught up in the radical protests favored by his girlfriend, Lucy (Evan Rachel Wood). His reward is a broken heart and a one-way ticket back to the shipyards.

At more than two hours, Across the Universe stretches its already thin premise to the breaking point, which might explain why Sony Pictures insisted that its acclaimed director accept a shorter cut. (She didn’t.) It’s bad enough that Taymor’s story, written with longtime collaborators Dick Clement and Ian La Frenais, is simply a collection of hallucinogenic fantasies and era-specific clichés tenuously connected by Beatles hits. There are whole sections of the film -- a psychedelic road trip to California featuring Bono’s forceful version of “Magical Mystery Tour”, for instance -- that feel like MTV-style music videos, rich in style but curiously purposeless.

For those keeping an eye on the rock-opera scoreboard, the Who still lead the Beatles by a comfortable margin of two to one; the third member of the great British Triumvirate, the Rolling Stones, have yet to enter the competition.

With a cast of characters drawn almost exclusively from Lennon and McCartney’s songbook -- even Mr. Kite makes an appearance to provide visual fodder for Jude and Lucy’s acid trip -- Taymor cannot resist the urge to make passing nods to other 60s superstars, namely Jimi Hendrix and Janis Joplin, as represented by JoJo (Martin Luther) and Sadie (the dazzling Dana Fuchs). Was there no room for Bob Dylan? Jim Morrison? Jerry Garcia? Whither Eleanor Rigby?

One character, Prudence (T.V. Carpio), exists solely to justify a reprise of the White Album’s “Dear Prudence.” The rest of the time, she gazes longingly at her would-be conquests, eager to explore her unspoken but clumsily obvious passion for women. Then she runs away to join the circus. Huh?

Taymor, whose credits include Frida, Titus and the mega-hit Broadway production of The Lion King, entices her onetime lead Salma Hayek into a brief but memorable cameo during a rousing take on "Happiness is a Warm Gun". (Other musical highlights include Cocker’s “Come Together” and a powerfully soulful rendition of "Let It Be".) Elsewhere, her film is a visual triumph but an epic endeavor -- the retelling of an entire decade, in the words of its greatest pop icons -- that was probably doomed from the get-go.

When it works, it is compellingly watchable, but this isn’t a story so much as an experience. The narrative is disjointed and deliberately incomprehensible at times, and though its soundtrack will undoubtedly introduce a new generation to 33 of the most memorable pop songs ever written, Across the Universe isn’t about to make anyone forget those Beatles originals. It is whimsical silliness, imaginatively constructed but precious and gratingly excessive.

Rating: 2 out of 5 stars