The story starts out with a boy named Jude (played with charming dishevelment by British newcomer Jim Sturges) on an American quest to meet his real dad and along the way he finds Lucy (the sweetly angelic Evan Rachel Wood), a young American (already a survivor after losing her first love in Vietnam.) It's your basic boy meets girl, boy loses girl, boy gets girl back plot, but who cares-- the tenderness of the acting and the way they play it straight wins you over, and like a good Beatles song, who cares if it's a bit corny sometimes. The first half plays like early Beatles, cheery and a little too innocent, but as the film darkens, the songs do as well.
The young lovers make a pilgrimage to Manhattan and start the impoverished hippie\activist dream-- he's a cartoonist, she's on the anti-war movement, made even more personal by the draft call of her slacker older brother Max (Joe Anderson.) Other friends in toe are a Janis Joplin-like singer Sadie (the wonderful Dana Fuchs), Hendrix-like Jo-Jo (Martin Luther), and pre-sexual revolution lesbian Prudence (T.V. Carpio-- who sings probably the loveliest and saddest version of "I Wanna Hold Your Hand," I've ever heard.) There's plenty of bizarre cameos as well like Joe Cocker as a pimp singing, "Come Together," Eddie Izzard's Mr. Kite freak, Salma Hayek as a quintet of singing nurses, and most bizarre of all, Bono playing the Timothy Leary-like Dr. Robert, in the loopiest, yet almost transcendental version of "I Am the Walrus."
And that's the thing about Across the Universe is that even if one my call it kitsch or a homogenization of the decade that changed everything it's still a joyous and exciting film. Visually arresting, sometimes a bit too arty for its own good-- the masked women falling into the ocean sequence I still don't understand, but it looked cool, the minutes long, somewhat overly stylized LSD trip, Mr. Kite's circus, G.I. Joe like army recruiters followed by scared draftees carrying the Statue of Liberty, singing,"It's Too Heavy," it's all good, because this movie is more about a feeling then a time or a place. The fact that me, a 23-year-old knew every song in this movie proves the power of a Beatles song, even the simplest, especially the simplest.
My only real criticism about Across the Universe, and this may have something to do with a supposed battle over the final cut, was that in a way I wanted more-- some of the craziest, most loony moments seemed to stop abruptly then segue into a more conventional movie until the next song began. One key scene, a moving montage expressing the Civil Rights Movement, with a young boy beautifully singing, "Let it Be," played and lingered for a few minutes, almost bringing me to tears, than stopped, I wanted more, but maybe that just means there's a kick-ass director cut on the way.
In the end though this movie brought a smile to my face. In a world with anger and war and sadness it's refreshing to watch an ambitious movie (even one that falls on it's face a whole bunch of times) that earnestly, but not manipulatively puts a smile on your face. Maybe love isn't all you need, but it's nice to think that way once in a while. B+