From its opening scene onward, Julie Taymor's troubled Beatles musical Across The Universe unavoidably recalls Baz Luhrmann's Moulin Rouge!—even star Jim Sturgess seems to have been cast as much for his resemblance to Ewan McGregor as anything else. But where Luhrmann's soundtrack stitched together fragments of Madonna, David Bowie, and Elton John into giddy mash-ups, Across The Universe digs deep into Sony's Beatles catalogue and lets more than 30 songs sprawl out, often at full length. Even tunes that zip by too quickly on an album can feel overlong when they're being used as shallow illustrations of teen angst in the all-too-often-explored tumultuous '60s.
Taymor (Titus, Frida, Broadway's The Lion King) has traditionally gone for spectacle over subtlety, which holds emphatically true in a too-obvious storyline where even the protagonist names and characterizations come from Beatles songs. The story has Liverpool dockworker Jude (Sturgess) traveling to New York City, where he and Lucy (Evan Rachel Wood) pursue a relationship. Meanwhile, Lucy's brother Maxwell (Joe Anderson) copes with the draft, in a plotline (and a series of montages) straight out of Hair. But Wood has her consciousness raised and gets radical, while Sturgess just wants to make art and enjoy the counterculture's wild vibe.
Taymor and her co-writers (scripting team Dick Clement and Ian La Frenais) pepper the film with references to Beatles songs they didn't use, and with parallels to New York bohemia: Supporting characters Martin Luther and Dana Fuchs, as JoJo (from "Get Back") and Sadie ("Sexy Sadie") stand in for Jimi Hendrix and Janis Joplin, and the whole film pointedly ends—like The Beatles' career—with a rooftop concert. It's all very clever and thought-through, but all the allusions don't much bolster the bland central romance or the paper-thin treatment of '60s social issues. Neither does the excessive psychedelia—Sony honcho Joe Roth publicly feuded with Taymor over the run time, and the many songs included only as druggy visual romps makes his desire for edits seem entirely reasonable. (Eddie Izzard's awful, babbly performance of "Being For The Benefit Of Mister Kite!" against a frantic animated background is the film's worst sin.)
Ultimately, Universe's saving grace is its reckless energy and Taymor's typically gorgeous imagery, whether she's filming a straight-up dance sequence to "With A Little Help From My Friends" or a trippy surrealist nightmare in which the Army processes Anderson to "I Want You." The film wavers between exhilarating and gimmicky, and the cast's interpretations of the Beatles catalog vary between passionate and rote, but Across The Universe is consistent in one aspect: Its crazed ambition. When it falls, it falls far, but at least that means it's reaching high.