Sunday, November 23, 2014

The Theory of Everything

The Theory of Everything
Dir. James Marsh

3 out of 5

The lives of British theoretical physicist Stephen Hawking (Eddie Redmayne) and his first wife, Jane Wilde (Felicity Jones), are dramatized in the lovely but inert The Theory of Everything.  The film, based on Wilde's memoirs, heavily emphasizes a romantic angle from the get-go and seldom deviates from the prestige movie playbook.  Hawking's major career achievements - most notably, his work on the nature of time and the origins of the universe - are juxtaposed against the development of the motor-neuron disease that gradually robs him of his physical faculties.

The Theory of Everything eschews all the admittedly low-hanging but potentially powerful metaphors - a vibrant mind overcoming a weakened body, a man obsessed with time despite his own uncertain future - in favor of the longitudinal study of a late 20th-century marriage.  To its credit, the movie tries to say something worthwhile about the unpredictability of love and the long, difficult arc of human relationships.  We see more of the wife's side than we typically do in these biopics; as devoted as Jane is, she finds herself up against obstacles and temptations she could never have foreseen as a young woman spellbound by Hawking's confidence and determination.

But no matter how honest Jones and Redmayne are their performances, the movie reveals little about what makes Hawking - whose life was certainly impacted but not defined by this relationship - such a singular figure.  Instead, Hawking's brash real-life personality and groundbreaking science are made cutesy and digestible for maximum uplift.  In the end, that's Everything's mission: not to educate, but to inspire.  In this the film is rather successful, full of swelling strings and plucky humor.  But the lightly patronizing tone of the entire endeavor - which seems to suggest that we should be most impressed by Hawking's suffering - doesn't give that fuzzy feeling enough support to last.

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