Saturday, December 13, 2014

Movie Review: The Theory of Everything (2014)

The Theory of Everything has received rave reviews from critics (81% on Rotten Tomato), has been well-received by audiences (84% of RT) with $13.6 million in box office receipts so far and just received four Golden Globe Award nominations (to go with 7 other nominations and 3 wins already). It follows the extraordinary story of one of most famous living scientists – the theoretical physicist, cosmologist and author Stephen Hawkins – and his courtship and marriage to Jane Wilde, his growing fame and his triumphant attitude in the face of heartbreaking physical travails. Given that both of the main characters are still alive, this might be the beginning of the problem with the film for me.

To start, it is an extraordinary acting performance by Eddie Redmayne, who has already impressed in My Week with Marilyn (2011), Good Shepherd (2006), Like Minds (2006) and on the London stage. He seems to be channeling Hawkins from one moment to the next, contorting his body as it begins to fail him while finding a way to communicate his humanity and brilliance in the process. And Felicia Jones is also impressive as the wife struggling to keep her love alive as her husband’s body collapses before her. The story starts as Hawkins meets his future wife at a Cambridge party. The two are immediately drawn to one another and have a few lovely dates before the news emerges that Stephen has a motor neuron disease (similar to Lou Gehrig’s Disease) and that he has two years to live.

Jane’s love is so strong that she agrees to marry Stephen anyway, maybe unsure of the reality that he will live for 40 more years and counting. In any case, his body quickly begins its decline and we watch her love and patience taking care of him in a way that begins to appear more like a nurse than a wife. His fame grows after finishing his doctorate, as do the challenges of their marriage. But they have three beautiful children and continue to struggle to make the marriage work (though the majority of that struggle appears to reside with Jane). And while one can certainly find inspiration in the power of love and his triumph over his physical limitations, a question started to plant itself in my head as the movie hit the halfway point – what is the point?

Warning: spoilers to follow

Is this a love conquers all story? Well, no, since the two ultimately part and both remarry others. Is it a story of genius? Maybe, but there are very few moments where we get a glimpse at what that brilliance actually entails (unlike, say, Good Will Hunting or A Beautiful Mind). Is it simply an inspirational story of overcoming obstacles and reaffirming the human spirit? That appears to be the most accurate description, and while the end certainly gives us a final parry on that score, it too often falls flat for me.

I imagine it is the sort of film that will win more awards and continue to be hailed by the majority of critics. Audiences will flock to it and cheer on the love story and Hawkins victory over the worst of odds. But I believe at its heart it suffers from a schizophrenic inability to decide what it is, and instead takes the safe path toward a film that the whole family can enjoy and you will leave feeling slightly inspired, if not tired, at the end.

James Marsh’s directing is certainly adept and occasionally inspired, the main players should win awards for their acting and the story is ultimately very nice. But it lacks heart and really a raison d’etre that is truly worthy. One short scene, for me, sums up all of its flaws. Jane takes off Stephen’s glasses and cleans them, wondering aloud why they are always so dirty. It is the perfect metaphor for The Theory of Everything. For while rose tinted glasses provide a wonderful way to look at the world, one hopes a film occasionally takes them off so we can explore the deeper depths of the reality we actually live in, with all its faults and foibles. This film rarely does so. C+

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