WONDERSTRUCK * *
Starring Oakes Fegley, Millicent Simmonds, Julianne Moore, Jaden Michael and Michelle Williams. Screenplay by Brian Selznick. Directed by Todd Haynes.
There are movies that tease out and withhold narrative information as a way of engaging the audience, and there are others that feel like they’re doing it just to jerk you around. Todd Haynes’ Wonderstruck falls squarely in the latter category. It’s a visually rapturous puzzle without very many pieces, hobbled by a forehead-smacking plot full of revelations so obnoxiously delayed the whole movie would be about fifteen minutes long if any of these characters answered a goddamn question when they were asked. Screenwriter Brian Selznick’s adaptation of his own illustrated novel is rife with storytelling slight-of-hand tricks that probably work fine when abstracted to the pages of a picture book, but dramatized on a big screen they made me want to tear my hair out.
The film follows the adventures of two deaf children in New York City some fifty years apart. We begin in 1927, when movie-mad Rose (played by the magnificently named Millicent Simonds) runs away from her New Jersey home to try and find one Lillian Mayhew (Julianne Moore), a silver screen superstar making her Broadway debut. Shot in shimmering black-and-white with a beautiful bevy of silent cinema flourishes, these sequences play to Haynes’ gift for stylistic mimicry and film history bona fides. Indeed, there’s nothing in the rest of Wonderstruck nearly as devastating as an early scene in which Rose’s favorite movie palace closes down for the installation of synchronous sound. Speakers roll in like heralds of doom, a paradise cruelly torn away from our hearing-deprived heroine.
Half-a-century later it’s the summer of Sam and young Ben (sad-eyed Oakes Fegley of last year’s wonderful Pete’s Dragon remake) arrives in New York City looking for the father he’s never met. All Ben’s got to go on is an old bookmark plus some cryptic dreams about wolves, his quest further complicated as the lad recently lost his hearing after being struck by lightning. (For real.) Ben eventually winds up hiding out in a secret room deep within the American Museum of Natural History, where we also see flashbacks to young Rose fleeing from an overzealous guard in scenes semi-recycled from Selznick’s own The Invention Of Hugo Cabret. (I wasn’t aware of the writer’s resume when I was watching Wonderstruck and thought geez, this feels like a crummy knockoff of Scorsese’s Hugo.)
Haynes’ gobsmackingly great 2007 Bob Dylan biopic I’m Not There cut so fluidly around six different tones and timelines that it’s kinda shocking how badly he fumbles the juxtapositions of just two within Wonderstruck. The movie lurches between eras without ever settling into a rhythm, leaving crucial plot details infuriatingly obscured. I found myself zoning out and drinking in the meticulous period details, especially legendary cinematographer Edward Lachman’s groovy-grungy 1977 color palate and Deodato’s slinky electric piano rendition of “Also Sprach Zarathrustra,” a perennially Proustian earworm for us seventies babies.
The rap against Haynes is that he’s all polish and emotionally cold. And yes, there’s a sense in which fussy films like Carol and Far From Heaven can feel a bit like museum pieces themselves, heartbreak arranged artfully under glass. Wonderstruck isn’t about to give any ammo to the other side, despite fine performances by these young actors Haynes whiffs the emotional payoffs with some strange staging. Ben’s climactic reunion with a pal played by Jaden Michael just lies there, as does an awkwardly prolonged ancestry-exposition dump featuring Julianne Moore playing a second role for the second time this week.
To his dubious credit, Selznick’s eventual threading together of all these obtuse story strands somehow manages to elicit the normally mutually exclusive feelings of both “you’ve gotta be fucking kidding me” and “is that all there is?” Wonderstruck ends with its characters gazing up at the stars, but the movie remains maddeningly earthbound. Still love that Deodato cover, though.