Sunday, April 3, 2022

Write what you know


Directed by Adam Nee and Aaron Nee
Written by Seth Gordon, Oren Uziel, Dana Fox, Adam Nee, and Aaron Nee

Spoilers: moderate

It's easy to like The Lost City, at one point titled The Lost City of D and changed, I think, because they wanted to save the "D stands for dick!" joke for the movie itself (it stands for a difficult-to-pronounce tribal endonym on a Caribbean island, but since the tribe appears to have been made up, it does indeed stand for "pun name on the James Gray movie" and, yes, also "dick").  It's breezy and bright and largely delightful, and, because, by some definitions, it's an original property in a dangerously-inbred Hollywood ecosystem, it's also the kind of thing you'd want to root for.

But it's also easy to get annoyed by the profound modesty of The Lost City's tiny, tiny ambitions.  These can be largely summed up (belying that "original" label) as "an unavowed and potentially actionable crypto-remake of Romancing the Stone"not an insightful take, but good God, a necessary onethough somehow the description "Romancing the Stone remake for 2022" strikes me as giving it both too much credit and not enough.  On the one hand you'd be apt to look at a 2022 remake of any long-dormant intellectual property with caution, assuming it shall inevitably misunderstand the core appeal of the concept, and thankfully The Lost City doesn't; on the other hand, you'd expect a 2022 remake to be bigger, and curiously, The Lost City may actually aim to be smaller.  Which is, weirdly, one of the big ways it's like Romancing the Stone, which history tells us wasn't technically a Raiders of the Lost Ark clone, but nobody who's ever seen it has been able to escape the impression that it's at least a light Raiders parody that didn't sweat the inevitable unfavorable comparison to Raiders as an action-adventure film.  I wouldn't say The Lost City has no ideas of its ownit departs in one major way from its template by recasting both its leads as sad losersbut there is a tacit pride in the old-school churned-out knock-off artistry at work here that I don't quite know what to do with, a sensation that you're watching a B-movie from 1986 that's happy to exploit the preexisting goodwill that somebody else created.  The contentment to be so purely a programmer is actually charming in this day and age, though this probably shouldn't be confused with an accomplishment.

But when I said it's a crypto-remake of Romancing the Stone (and what isn't a crypto-remake of Romancing the Stone is a redemption of Romancing the Stone's dreadful sequel, Jewel of the Nile), I meant it leaves "homage" behind in favor of "it's a good thing Diane Thomas is dead" at literally the zero second mark.  Its very first scene, like Romancing the Stone's very first scene, cold opens at the end of a book written by our heroine, in The Lost City's case Loretta Sage (Sandra Bullock).  This also doubles as direct, heavy Raiders parody, which is funny enough, though it gets a little airless and Cinema Sins-style tedious once her author self-insert figure Angela (also Bullock) and her author self-insert figure's brawny hero Dash McMahon (Channing Tatum) begin interrogating the plausibility of an ancient tomb undisturbed for centuries that nevertheless boasts of such a thriving herpetological ecology that it can somehow support a population of a thousand snakes.  The zig where Romancing the Stone had zagged is that when Loretta's reverie falls apart around her and she reads back what she's written she correctly identifies it as asinine trash, though when we'd met Kathleen Turner's adventure-romance author she was weeping at the subjective beauty of her asinine trash.  Which frankly made Romancing the Stone's lead all the more adorable and sympathetic, but any difference is welcome in a movie that replicates Romancing the Stone with such plagiaristic zeal that not only is it structurally similar, in that the same plot beats reoccur at roughly the same places in the screenplay, they also reoccur in, like, practically the same locations, or at least locations that are functionally-identical, and involve the same activities.

Well, Loretta is exhausted with her second career as a pulp novelist, having hit the big time with her Dash McMahon novels, but only as a contemptible last resort; her first, failed career was as a pop historian.  She once shared this ambition with her late husband, now seven years gone; unfortunately, he was the star (such as he was), and Loretta's only avenue for putting her knowledge to use was in this bowdlerized form, as the backdrop for softcore porn.  Making matters worse, she's been overshadowed by her own cover model, Alan Caprison (Tatum again), a dimwitted beefcake who enjoys this more than Loretta imagines anyone with half a brain possibly could.  As such an integral part of her success, she's had occasion to interact with this be-wigged himbo far more often than she'd prefer, and with the publication of her latest (and she hopes, final) novel, she's been sent on one more book tour by her publisher Beth (Da'Vine Joy Randolph).  But now, in the midst of an argument with Alan, Loretta vanishes out from under himforcibly "invited" to a meeting with one Abigail Fairfax (Daniel Radcliff), the disfavored son of the Fairfax commercial empire.  Abigail has presently doubled down on the obsession that earned him his family's opprobrium, using his still-substantial resources to track down the so-called "lost city of D" in his bid to possess its history, above all the fabulous "Crown of Fire" said to have been buried with its most important king.  Alone amongst Loretta's fans, Abigail has recognized the substantial scholarship that's gone into her novels.

So, yes, he probably could have just asked her nicely.  But that would be less efficient, and Abigail spirits his captive away to the volcanic Caribbean isle that holds the lost city's secrets, principally to do translation work she could have done at home.  (Meanwhile, there's a whole thing about the post-colonial appropriation of other people's history that might've felt slightly less like the movie assuming a preemptive defensive crouch if that aforementioned volcano weren't about to obliterate all traces that the lost city ever existed.)  Well, anyway, Loretta's disappearance has not gone unnoticed, and Alan puts himself on the case, enlisting the aid of a tracker he knows from a yoga retreat, Jack Trainer (none other than Brad Pitt), but Alan insists on going along even though he's not especially competent, because his years of being condescended to by Loretta have nursed in him a naked desperation for his author's approval.

So that's the one serious distinguishing factor from Romancing the Stone there, so while Radcliffe gets maybe the choicest verbal comedy in the film in Abigail's cruel digs on Loretta's extremely lonely lifestyle, both its leads are broken, pitiful people, albeit in ways distinct enough that they are basically automatically destined to have a lot of personal conflict before inevitably realizing they're two hot movie stars meant for each other.  (The concept does seem weirdly out-of-date, of course, though maybe I just haven't been paying attention; but even then, I don't know to what extent Fabio interacted with his authors, and I assume it was never this much.)  As for the actual Harrison Ford/Michael Douglas figure hereincarnated by Pitt as the perfect vessel for effortless accomplished masculinity and openly lusted after by Loretta within moments of meeting himhe could be an adversary as much as an ally.  This is a superb engine for an adveturous romantic comedy, though the downside is that it's sufficiently rich in potential that it makes it hard not to complain about what it doesn't do perfectly.  Like, so many quibbles, and some are more than quibbles: above all, of course, this dynamic shifts very quickly.  Structurally-speaking, it's an astounding piece of gamesmanship, but it means that the thing that had been the driver of the funniest material and the most robust action-adventuring doesn't feel like even half of its possibilities have been explored yet.  But then, that's what makes it sort of genuinely nervy.

It hopes a lower-key course will prove satisfactory, and it's mostly right, though this is where the quibbles start massing: it has very few further ideas about how to do action after this, with, like, two climactic "setpieces" that you could almost admire for their straightforwardness, though you could also grouse about how little flair went into them; and for the same reason the physical comedy becomes more grounded and less bound up in adventurous thrills (though it still has a couple of big violent laughs), at which point the comedy instead shifts predominantly to yammer-heavy faux-improv.  It doesn't help that Abigail quickly becomes a deeply ineffective and unthreatening villain, without ever quite becoming an acknowledged joke, because out of the five writers there seems to have been no agreement over precisely how buffoonish he ought to be, erring on the side of caution and winding up with a character that boxes in Radcliffe's apparent (and I'd say correct) instinct to make him a deranged clown.  And it's nice that a movie can come in under two hours these days (The Lost City's just 112 minutes), but that doesn't mean it's not still too long; and the story suffers from annoyingly-frequent, momentum-halting retirements to a subplot concerned with the publisher's own efforts to reach Abigail's island, which "pay off" in a plot mechanical way and are, in the moment, dead air and the source of by far the film's blandest comedy.  Plus it's all not even as hot as you'd hope: it's the kind of movie where there's a long scene where circumstances dictate that Loretta marvel at the size of Alan's penis, presently hanging a foot in front of her face, and it somehow still isn't noticeably horny.

So that's the problemsa film where most of the best stuff is in the first hour (Bullock's best acting, too, though she may honestly be acting too well, or maybe just in an inapt register, with an entire first act that feels like she's gritting her teeth under her lips the whole time, creating a character who hates her life, her associates, and herself with such poisonous intensity that it's almost too effective for the needs of the frothy action-romcom she's in).  But that first hour is pretty fantastic, and it's never, in truth, bad, offering numerous compensations for any small deficiencies.  Bullock and Tatum, for instance, do have an awful lot of chemistryit's not, specifically or at least overwhelmingly, sexual chemistry, but their mismatched pair fits together surprisingly well, Tatum in particular peeling off the layers of blockheadedness that, for better or worse, is his screen persona, to find a tender, hurt blockhead at the center.  And the yammering faux-improv is shockingly good for yammering faux-improv.

It also has a visual sensibility, much of it already locked in by the scenario and the setting and the location photography, but directorial siblings Adam and Aaron Nee show a reasonably strong eye for cutting together stunt-based action with a comedic bent, even if their demonstration of that peaks disagreeably early in the film's centerpiece rescue (and even if its denouement, a very nice "cool guys don't look at explosions" shot, would've been rather more effective if the Nees hadn't forgotten to remove the temp soundtrack of a butchered Pat Benatar song).  This was supposed to be the positive section, so going back to that, we have cinematographer Jonathan Sela managing some very fine sun-dappled jungle days and blue mist-strewn jungle nights.  It's awfully glossy, but it seems right, and I came around quickly to the heart of the Nees' visual scheme, that atrocious sequined purple cocktail dress which Loretta's publisher insisted she wear and which is now her only choice of clothing in a deeply incongruous green jungle.  It feels wrong in every single frame of the movie, but in a good way.

Now, there should be more here.  But the laughs are here; the adventure is here, even if it largely peters out; the romance is here.  It's fun in a deeply formulaic wayobviouslybut, then, it's also a formula we haven't gotten to see much of in what feels like a terribly long time.

Score: 7/10


  1. So I haven't seen Romancing the Stone, and I was wondering if that would make The Lost City seem fresher or more vibrant in my eyes. While I liked it quite a bit, it seems like having seen RtS didn't change much for you either, which I suppose is nice!

    1. I think we have relatively similar tolerances for really close genre riffing, so I don't *think* it would change your appreciation either.

      It did make me want to watch RtS again, though.