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Tuesday, February 10, 2015

Recent Watches: The Theory of Everything (2014)

As previously established, the Academy Award loves a true story, especially ones about famous, important historical figures. (Failing that, a famous actor or somebody who cut their own arm off will do.) Stephen Hawking is both very famous and rather important, at least in his field of science. Given Hawkings’ standing in both scientific circles and pop culture, for his theories and his cool robot voice, a big bio film about his life was going to get made eventually. “The Theory of Everything” isn’t even the first time somebody’s tried it. Despite mostly begrudgingly positive reviews, the Academy was impressed with the movie, even giving it a Best Picture nomination. Does the film exceed expectations or is it just another biopic, another piece of awards bait?

Based off the memoirs by Stephen’s long time wife Jane Hawking, “The Theory of Everything” begins with Hawking’s college career, when many of his brilliant ideas were first formulated. The film chronicles Hawking’s first meeting with Jane. Despite their differing beliefs, the two quickly fall in love. While attempting to discover his “theory of everything,” a mathematical equation that will explain the fundamental tenants of the universe, Hawking is struck down by a degenerative neurological condition. With Jane by his side, he struggles through the disease, living far beyond his expected life span, fathering three children, and becoming one of the most famous scientists in the world.

The most disappointing, and the least unexpected, thing about “The Theory of Everything” is that it’s not very interested in exploring Hawking’s scientific ideas. Why Hawking is interested in these concepts is never elaborated on. How he gleams his understanding and unique insight into complex mathematical ideas is barely touched upon. And what exactly that means is barely illustrated. “The Theory of Everything” essentially dumbs down the science as much as you’d expect. A handful of scenes are devoted to teachers explaining basic quantum science. The real stuff would be out of our league. Mostly the film falls back on the lazy biopic device of a character saying something and everyone around him proclaiming it brilliant. I have no idea what Stephen Hawking thinks about the film but I suspect he’d agree with me: Its treatment of his field is reductive and overly simplified.

What “The Theory of Everything” is more then willing to focus on, however, is Hawking’s degrading physical state. Even at the film’s beginning, Hawking has slight twitches and trembles. While writing formulas on a chalk board, the camera focuses on his shaking fingers. However, things quickly get worse. While walking across campus, he looses balance, falling flat on his face. Afterwards, he gets his diagnosis. Hawking falls into a deep depression, brooding in a bathtub and his room. From there on, “The Theory of Everything” runs through his condition at a rocket sled’s pace. Soon, he’s walking with canes, squirming down stairs, in a wheelchair, coughing up blood, loosing his ability to speak, so on and so forth. The film is clearly more concerned with Hawking’s illness then his genius. Maybe that’s easier to explain to middle America. (Also, the moment when Stephen gains his iconic computer voice is treated with roughly the same amount of grandeur as Bruce Wayne putting his cowl on for the first time in “Batman Begins.” Make of that what you will.)

Considering the source material, “The Theory of Everything” probably thinks of itself as a romance, first and foremost. The moments focused on Stephen and Jane’s love story is probably the most routine stuff in the film. Their first date, at a school dance where Stephen compares the glowing shirts of the dancers to the lives of stars, is relatively tedious. The debate between Hawking’s atheism and Jane’s devout Christianity is set up in a heavy-handed fashion near the beginning. The issue is mostly forgotten until its dramatic return at the film’s climax. Jane’s devotion to Stephen is taken as a matter-of-fact. She is her caretaker and the mother of his children. There are a few stray moments of genuine sweetness, such as the two mingling in bed together. Their actual romance takes a back seat to the film’s plot mechanism.

Despite being a totally routine biopic in most every way, there are still some elements about “The Theory of Everything” worth recommending. Obviously, the actors are quite good. Eddie Redmayne, forever in my mind as the cowboy rapist from “Hick,” is committed as Hawking. It’s a physically demanding performance. Redmayne totally transforms himself into the famous physicist, contorting his neck and limbs, doing his best to replicate the scientist’s well-known condition. At times, Redmayne truly is the spitting image of Hawking. Considering how much the Academy loves visually draining performances, I’m not shocked that Redmayne has emerged as Michael Keaton’s main competition in the Best Actor category. Felicity Jones is also good as the long suffering Jane, though her performance is, by its very nature, less showy. The best thing about “The Theory of Everything” is its fantastic musical score. Director James Marsh is smart enough to frequently let Johann Johannsson’s lyrical music play over otherwise silent sequences. These moments are the most powerful in the film.

Bound to be forgotten in a few years times, “The Theory of Everything” nevertheless has a handful of things that elevate it over the usual biopics shenanigans. It doesn’t really grant any deep insight into Stephen Hawking’s life or the relationship with his ex-wife. It’s definitely far too long as the film seriously drags in the last third. It is far from the definitive film on the man’s life. It doesn’t even really try. Taken on its own terms, it’s not a bad flick. Not great but not bad. In other words, it's a [6/10].

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