We crave originality in the arts. We crave ambition. Playing it safe, in and of itself, wins you no prizes and puts you in jeopardy of dishonor. Bold moves are exciting, invigorating, and inherently laudable.
At the same time, risktaking is also less important than the simple achievement of executing a good movie. A well-told story on familiar ground beats a Wile E. Coyote leap off the cliff every time.
Five hours of my life were spent Saturday at the Toronto Film Festival watching two of the more ambitious, original, caution-to-the-wind films you’ll see get major play all year, “Anna Karenina” and “Cloud Atlas.” Five hours spent watching, as far as I’m concerned, directors suffering for the fallibilities of their ACME contraptions.
Like our coyote friend, “Anna” helmer Joe Wright will rise again. So will Andy and Lana Wachowski and Tom Tykwer, the trio behind the “Cloud Atlas” adaptation. In fact, my disenchantment with their films may well be a minority opinion. At the Saturday world premiere of “Atlas” in Toronto, a warm standing ovation was offered (though tweets in the aftermath indicated a polarized response), and Peter Debruge of Variety gave a socko review. Similarly, Leslie Felperin was essentially positive in her review for Variety of "Anna."
But each would have faulted the films had they not offered merits beyond their ambition. For my part, what I saw was ambition gone awry.
In “Anna,” I saw a well-intentioned, unique, stylized take on the Tolstoy classic, with the story introduced conspicuously as if it were taking place on a stage – as if reality was itself a form of performance art. It’s an approach that offers excitement and promise. But the initial strokes are so broad that it’s impossible to take events seriously. And then, when Wright apparently does want us to take things seriously, he pushes much of the stylization aside, moving us into natural interiors and exteriors.
At that point, it’s too late. Wright has not allowed me to invest in the characters as real people, and then, by his forsaking the stage conceit, doubles down on my displeasure by making it seem like an ill-fated experiment. I get the distinction he's trying to make between the real and the put-on, but like it or not, these are all human lives at stake here, and he's undermining my ability to care about more than half of them.
It helps not at all that Vronsky (Aaron Taylor-Johnson), the catalyst for Anna’s destruction, is feckless. He is utterly without feck. His only act of distinction is a gesture of donating money, which he has up to his Russian wazoo, to a family in need, and yet this equivalent of tossing a coin into a Salvation Army bucket is enough to turn Keira Knightley’s Anna upside down and inside out like the siren song of Diana Ross. Two hours later, the question remains – she threw her life away for him? Forget about husband Alexei (Jude Law), who no longer excites her – she threw her son away for this?
I admire Wright for his courage, but – while making the necessary acknowledgment that he’ll forget more about film than I’ll ever know – I remain perplexed at the idea that his movie works.
“Cloud Atlas” certainly never retreats an inch from its bust-the-world-open palate, crisscrossing time, space and reality to unite countless storytelling threads in service of the point that we’re all connected, that each life has an impact, that breakthroughs depend on conceiving the impossible as possible. Yet the film is troubled from minute one, when the first of 97 or so different characters played by Tom Hanks, resembling what he might have looked like had he never been rescued from “Cast Away,” comes on the screen and is a figure hard to take seriously.
The film offers countless characters and storylines, ranging from the corny and trite, to the corny or trite, to the “OK, that one isn’t so bad, but still …” The forward thinking that went into the film’s visuals, some of which are just incredible, was absent in plotlines such as a cliched take on slave-era life. Elsewhere, other tales force you to work to make sense of them but don’t really incentivize you to do so.
Similarly, the connections that are made are superficial, and there’s nothing earthshattering about the message. Give Rod Serling the same target, and he’d knock it out in 25 minutes and have you watching it in reruns five decades later. No doubt, an advantage goes to the readers of David Mitchell’s novel, but the movie still has to stand on its own.
“It’s an experimental film in many ways,” Lana Wachowski said of “Cloud Atlas” during the gala introductions. And for venturing into the lab, I offer my respect. But if you see these films falter during awards season, don’t assume it’s because voters are afraid of the radical. Maybe it’s just that they didn’t think the films worked.
And of course, if the films thrive at kudos time, I’ll be the one left eating the Roadrunner's fumes.