You don't have to love the Beatles to hate Across the Universe. The beauty of director Julie Taymor's latest exercise in cinematic bombast a deafening blur of Fab Four tunes rerecorded, recontextualized and retarded to fit a sappy, late-'60s romance is that it can inspire the same stupefied reaction in both a Lennon-phile and a 13-year-old whose only experience with the band is through mall-restroom Muzak. It's a reckless act of boomer necrophilia, a colossal miscalculation that trivializes its original source as it renders it lame to a whole new generation of potential fans.
Lurching through an assortment of bohemians-in-turmoil clichés, Universe proves itself to be just as clueless and out-of-touch as the 2005 big-screen version of Rent, but way more self-satisfied. Where that New York starving-artist epic occupied the screen as timidly as possible, like a silent-but-deadly fart, Universe splashes onto the screen with something approximating authority. After two features (Titus, Frida), Taymor still has no real command of the medium of film, but damn it if she isn't going to assault your eardrums and eyes to the point of an epileptic seizure to announce that she is, in fact, the modern master of the movie musical.
To that end, everyone in her power has been instructed to play it to the hilt: the cinematographer, the production designers and the vocalist-performers, who, when not overacting madly, seem vaguely petrified of being trampled by all the props, sets and special effects. What passes for inspiration in Universe is mere overkill: The animated Uncle Sam posters that jab their fingers at a line of Vietnam draftees to the tune of "I Want You (She's So Heavy"); the flaming strawberries that adorn the walls of a recording studio named "Strawberry Jamz" (didn't MC Hammer wear those?); the soul-scarring appearance of Bono, prattling on in rhyme about "masturbating alligators" as the acid guru Dr. Robert. A protest march isn't a protest march unless it's populated with giant Easter Island-style papier-mâché heads, and Taymor's idea of trippy involves blurring the motion on the screen and washing everything in tie-dye colors (haven't seen that one before).
To their credit, most of the actors surrender themselves to the flimsy material, content to be shoved along only by their mentor's "vision." Despite the film's three credited writers, the sparse dialogue between Beatles lyrics consists of such profundities as "Music's the only thing that makes sense anymore" and "We should all be radical!" Evan Rachel Wood can be a disarming screen presence given the right role, but as Lucy yes, "in the sky, with diamonds" she has a deer-in-the-headlights quality that's often unintentionally funny. The men fare somewhat better, although as (Hey) Jude, the dewy-eyed Jim Sturgess seems to have been chosen primarily for his ability to convincingly wear a shag haircut and affect a pot-induced stare.
As each arbitrary musical number runs into the other, you beg for relief or at least the closing credits and you almost get it in the form of Salma Hayek, playing a naughty nurse in the "Happiness Is a Warm Gun" number. Slinking around a veteran's hospital with an oversized syringe, she's the only genuinely erotic creature in the movie. It helps that her song is the one instance where Taymor and company can't shoehorn Lennon's abstract lyrics into their paint-by-numbers narrative. If only the rest of Universe made as little sense.
Michael Hastings writes about film for Metro Times. Send comments to firstname.lastname@example.org.