Monday, December 8, 2014

The Theory of Everything

Along with the Christmas lights flicking on, trees getting tinseled, and turkey leftovers getting the ol' heave-ho into the garbage, December also means the ramp-up of movie awards season.  It's no surprise then, that The Theory of Everything, the biopic of Stephen and Jane Hawking based on Jane Hawking's book, "Travelling To Infinity: My Life With Stephen" is one of the first films out of the gate for what is likely to be a jam-packed month.
By now, if you follow film at all, Eddie Redmayne and Felicity Jones' performances as Stephen and Jane Hawking have been brought to your attention.  Fantastic lead performances are the hallmark of any great biopic, and this is no exception.  Let's face facts, if any life is interesting enough to have a biography written about it, much less turned in to a film, it's probably going to be an extraordinary story and therefore, extraordinary acting is necessary.  Redmayne and Jones don't disappoint in telling a difficult story that spans decades of love, scientific breakthrough, descent into disease, fame, and the toll  those things take on a family.


I'm almost ashamed to admit how little I know of Stephen Hawking. In fact, my knowledge boils down to bullet points:
-the wheelchair
-the robotic voice
-the professorship
-A Brief History of Time
-This John Oliver Interview.

Don't forget, I'm of the generation that canceled funding to NASA and is simply recycling the 70s interest in the universe with better graphics in the updated Cosmos series.  For me, Stephen Hawking being on The Simpsons was a bigger deal than "A Brief History of Time".  If you're looking for clarification on his scientific life, The Theory of Everything isn't going to help much.  The word "time" is mentioned quite often, as are catchphrases like "black hole" and "spacetime irregularity" but this is not a film about science.  This film, instead, seems to get bogged down in the "God" vs. "Science" argument and the "Love is all you Need" life philosophy.  The God question is sort of begrudgingly answered when Hawking basically says "I don't really know, maybe there's a god, since you so strongly believe in one, Jane".  It's not really an answer, and, in that way, it's kind of a microcosm for the whole film.
All in all, I'm not entirely certain what the central point of this film was supposed to be.  It seems that there were three main plot points to be considered, and those are stand in as the beginning, middle and end of the narrative.  First up, is the discovery of Hawking's disease.  Coinciding with Hawking's discovery of his thesis subject, Hawking first experiences symptoms, gets the diagnosis and then begins to believe, through love, that he can beat the diagnosis. Then the focus shifts from Stephen's to Jane's perspective as the middling years of fame and publication take the spotlight.  That third ends with Stephen telling his wife that his nurse will be accompanying him on his North American tour, and that ushers in the final third which focuses on the dissolution of the central relationship.  It's all well-acted, but the narrative just feels a bit haphazard; like highlights strung together from random diary entries.  In a way, a story about a man obsessed with the universe is turned in to a story of what happens in one single home.  It's boiled down to the central performances so much that when anyone NOT in the immediate family showed up, they felt like foreign outsiders, people with passports to stop in on one scene and then leave, mostly forgotten.  Perhaps that's how it really did feel to be married to Stephen Hawking, in which case, the film's tone is a success, still, "disjointed" is the adjective I'd probably use to describe the storytelling of the film.  It's a film that seems unsure of what to really believe and where to take a stand.  Did a big bang create the universe?  Was God involved? Are human relationships the only thing that really matter?  The last line of the film indicates that, none of that science-y stuff really matters, because "look at our kids, look at what WE'VE made". This is the best scene illustrative of what I mean; it can't seem to decide whether it wants to be a film about the heart or about the head, and so it's just pulled in all directions.
This is the main reason, but there are other small reasons, why, I'm inclined to say that this film never really transcends the inherent pitfalls of The Biopic.  I should clarify that these are issues that I, myself have, and that they, perhaps, exude little to no weight in others people's minds.  However, for me, even the best biopic is only a pale imitation of an exhilarating life.  They are even further hindered when, instead of focusing on a specific period of time, they try to encompass all of time, which, perhaps ironically, this film attempts to do.  Much like Hawking's yet-to-discovered equation, The Theory of Everything just simply tries to do too much. I felt like I was never able to fully invest in even the most emotional of moments (and there are some very good instances) because the next plot point was always on the horizon.  It speeds by so quickly and the audience is just expected to fill in some of the gaps based on our already shared cultural knowledge of the situation, as well as our familiarity with narrative structure.
In a way, the problem with the biopic will always be the audience's previous knowledge.  We're already a biased jury. We know the players, we know the story, we know the ending.  The director can't change the ending just to shock the audience in to taking notice and so, by almost definition, the biopic is bound to be at the very least, predictable.
Sometimes the only way to shake the audience from monotony is to offer striking visuals, something that will be seared into their memories as standout moments, and unfortunately,The Theory of Everything is more paint-by-numbers than incredulous artistry, in terms of its production.  It's all so very "fine", and exceedingly English, that it never seems to take any real chances.  It's a solid biopic, but I feel as if, in order to truly understand the importance of Stephen Hawking, beyond the man in the wheelchair who does more in 24 hours than I do in 6 months, I'll probably need to wait for the 6 hour Ken Burns documentary on PBS.  I'll change that to 10 hours.  We all know Ken Burns could never make a documentary under 7 hours.

Pros: the score by Johann Johannsson is phenomenal, the lead performances are definitely actors working at the top of their game

Cons: It feels surprisingly safe for a film about a man who has made his name off of pushing boundaries.

3.5 out of 5.  It's worth seeing, but it's not required theater viewing.  You'll get the same experience with an On-Demand viewing, and with fewer people sneezing on you, probably.  Unless you have a house filled with people sneezing at the moment.

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