THE THEORY OF EVERYTHING
After being released in larger markets several weeks ago, the Stephen Hawking bio-pic The Theory of Everything has finally landed locally. For those of you who loved the trailers, it's probably going to be exactly the warm, touching, inspirational romance you were led to expect. For those of you who rolled your eyes at the trailers, as I did, it's probably going to be exactly the banal, formulaic, desperately Oscar-bait-y domestic drama you feared it might be, and perhaps even worse.
By "worse," I don't necessarily mean the movie is bad. It's not bad. It's not much of anything, really. Director James Marsh's professionally assembled biography-verging-on-hagiography boasts a technically admirable performance by Eddie Redmayne as Hawking and a lush, intoxicating score by composer Johann Johannsson that, in a nice surprise, augments the on-screen emotion rather than substitutes for it. I'd be perfectly content if Johannson won an Oscar for his efforts. However, I'll be irritated to no end if anything else about the movie, including Redmayne, is similarly awarded, because I found The Theory of Everything almost breathtakingly timid and by-the-numbers - a film so careful to not step outside its tasteful, unthreatening parameters that I nearly felt like screaming.
There's nothing wrong with the decision to focus this Hawking saga primarily on the physicist's relationship with first wife Jane (Felicity Jones), following the pair from courtship through 30 years of marriage through post-divorce friendship; for the rest, we always have documentarian Errol Morris' A Brief History of Time. (Marsh's film, written by Anthony McCarten, is adapted from Jane Hawking's memoir Traveling to Infinity: My Life with Stephen.) But while there are, of course, built-in limitations in trying to cover so many decades in two hours on-screen, the narrative lapses, excisions, and shortcuts taken here are rather staggering, with what remains always presented in the most Academy-friendly light possible. As Meet Cutes go, the one between Stephen's and Jane's Cambridge students is acceptable enough, even if you're never sure what initially draws Jane to this lanky, goofy-looking nerd with the obvious social awkwardness. But what - besides, apparently, her stereotypically British strength of character - keeps Jane transfixed even after Hawking's motor-neuron disease rages and Stephen begs her to leave him? And when a doctor tells Jane that Stephen has only two years to live, and she replies with the Oscar clip "I love him, and he loves me, and we're going to fight this thing together" - bam! Cue the wedding montage, and the arrival-of-the-children montage, and the passage of what is clearly at least four years. Were there other elements at work, medications or physical therapies maybe, or are we really meant to believe that this miracle of survival occurred solely because of The Power of Love? (Do we need more than one Interstellar per season?)
At one point, Jane's mother (Emily Watson, in the merest wisp of a cameo) tells her harried daughter that she should relieve her stress by joining the church choir, and Jane replies, "That's possibly the most English thing anyone has ever said." The Theory of Everything is possibly the most English movie anyone has ever made. (And Felicity Jones, with her adorable bunny-rabbit overbite, gives one of the most English portrayals ever committed to celluloid, forever teeter-tottering between selfless, stiff-upper-lip bravery and noble, trembling-lower-lip suffering.) Despite the occasional setback and understandable tantrum, Stephen attacks his work - of which we see precious little - and physical challenges with humor and Churchill-ian gusto; his and Jane's eventual affairs are handled with tact bordering on prudishness; a colleague makes a nudge-nudge query about the functionality of Stephen's genitals years after the man has already fathered two kids. Everything from the dewy photography (by Benoît Delhomme) to the colorless supporting cast reeks of refined good taste, and Marsh can always be counted on to go with the least imaginative staging options imaginable; you can practically predict the presentational order shot for shot and beat for beat. Even when Marsh strays from realism, as in the scene toward the end when Stephen takes magical leave of his wheelchair, it's with the all-too-predictable excuse of goosing tears from the audience, and calls undue and shameless attention to Redmayne's labors in the role.
Redmayne, however, is still the best reason to see the film - or rather, its first half, which shows Stephen's gradual loss of his motor skills with the onset of Lou Gehrig's disease. The actor's physical transformation is impeccably rendered, but what makes it truly wrenching is the accompanying horror and heartbreak in Stephen's eyes; Redmayne is careful to demonstrate not only what the disease is doing to Hawking physically but, without words to do it in, mentally. In the second half, confined to a chair and speaking only through the physicist's recognizably computerized "voice," Redmayne's performance is delivered entirely through his eyes, and he's as affecting as ever. By then, however, everything around him has fallen victim to Marsh's and McCarten's suffocating refinement. In the director's last shot, we see the Hawking kids (who barely register in the film) happily chasing one another around a perfectly tended English lawn - just giggling, causing no disturbance, while the grown-ups chat nearby. Don't be surprised if The Theory of Everything turns out to be everyone's mom's favorite movie of the holidays.