The Theory of Everything


Jane and Stephen Hawking, sneakin' around.

Jane and Stephen Hawking, sneakin’ around.

(2014) Biographical Drama (Focus) Eddie Redmayne, Felicity Jones, David Thewlis, Simon McBurney, Charlie Cox, Harry Lloyd, Emily Watson, Lucy Chappell, Charlotte Hope, Christian McKay, Abigail Cruttenden, Maxine Peake, Simon Chandler, Georg Nikoloff, Enzo Cilenti, Frank Leboeuf, Adam Godley, Guy Oliver-Watts, Alice Orr-Ewing, Nicola Victoria Buck. Directed by James Marsh

There is no doubt that Stephen Hawking is one of the greatest minds of our generation. He has redefined our thinking on how the universe works and the nature of time itself. There are many who believe he is in the same league as Einstein and Sir Isaac Newton when it comes to his effect on modern physics.

It is also well-known that he has had physical obstacles that most of us could never begin to cope with. Diagnosed with a version of ALS (also known as Lou Gehrig disease) at age 21, he was given just two years to live. In those two years he lost all motor control and eventually even his ability to speak. Still, he remains alive today – more than 50 years after his initial diagnosis.

Young Stephen Hawking (Redmayne) was a geeky, awkward, gangly sort of young man at Cambridge with plans to get his doctorate in cosmology and go on to come up with one simple, elegant equation that explains everything. In the meantime he does the same sorts of things that geeky, awkward, gangly sorts of young men have done in college for a very long time.

That is hang out with his friends, sleep in, go out drinking from time to time and have a spectacular lack of success with girls. That is, until he meets Jane Wilde (Jones) who is studying Iberian poetry. He is quite captivated with her. They are in many way polar opposites – he is drawn to science, she to the liberal arts. He is not traditionally handsome, she is a beauty by any standards. And he is a dedicated atheist, she a devout Christian member of the Church of England.

But he is warm and funny as well. His imagination takes him beyond the stars and into the way stars live and die. Even as a doctoral candidate his genius is recognized by his mentor Professor Dennis Sciama (Thewlis) as well as noted mathematician Roger Penrose (McKay). However his bright future is severely shaken by the news that he has a motor neuron disease and is only expected to live for two years, maybe a bit more. Needless to say he enters a deep depression.

But he and Jane have fallen deeply in love and have plans to marry. Certainly Stephen would understand if Jane would walk away from what can only be pain and heartache but ever-plucky like a good English rose, she refuses. Whatever happens will happen to them both and if their time together should be short, they will make the most of what they have.

But she wasn’t expecting to sign on for the long haul. Stephen, whose man parts are unaffected by the disease, fathers three children. As his condition deteriorates, she is caring for two and then a third squalling baby as well as for a husband who can’t do anything for himself. Desperate and overworked, she seeks solace from her mother (Watson) who advises her to join the Church chorus.

It turns out to be a splendid idea. The choirmaster, Jonathan Hellyer-Jones (Cox) becomes quite taken by the Hawkings’ situation and offers to help out as much as he can do. He turns out to be a godsend and he and Stephen get along famously. Hellyer-Jones, recently widowed, has begun to develop feelings for Jane and she for him. At his request, he steps back from a situation that is getting tricky.

The new therapist who helps Stephen learn to use an alphabet board (this is before he got the computerized voice that he is now famous for), a vivacious redhead named Elaine Mason (Peake) who came highly recommended develops a bond with Stephen that Jane doesn’t seem to have with him anymore. What will happen to this fairytale love story?

The operative words for this movie are the last two of the previous sentence. This is not a documentary about black holes and singularities, although some of the pioneering science that Hawking is responsible for is explained somewhat simply for most of us who simply don’t have the ability to understand the details of his work. Rather, this is a love story about two people who overcome frightening odds and share triumphs and tragedies.

Redmayne is a wonder here. Folks who are following the buzz for the upcoming Oscar nominations to be announced late next month are probably aware that many veteran industry observers feel that Redmayne is a lock for a Best Actor Oscar nomination and Jones is a serious contender for a Best Actress nomination as well. The buzz isn’t wrong. Redmayne is phenomenal, undertaking a very physical performance, literally shriveling up before our eyes going from a fairly healthy if not physically fit young man to one who is barely able to walk until he is a shell of a man, hunched over in his wheelchair and unable to support himself even in a sitting position. Redmayne spent time with dancers and ALS patients in order to get the movements and body language right. He also captures Hawkings’ delightful sense of humor.

Jones has a difficult role to play albeit one that is much less physically taxing. Hers is much more emotionally challenging, playing a woman who is being beaten down by the difficulties of her role not of wife and mother but also of nurse. Often times she feels taken for granted, cleaning up after the messes that her family makes and unable to take the time to pursue her own dreams. Jane is clearly frustrated and overwhelmed and Jones successfully conveys that to audiences. Our sympathy is with her as well as with her husband as her sacrifice takes on special resonance for those of us who are disabled who have a partner who has to shoulder more than her burden (or his).

There is a scene that resonated especially with me as a person with a degenerative condition. Stephen is having more and more difficulty walking and one afternoon Jane brings in a wheelchair. There isn’t any dialogue but it can only be an admission that the disease is winning for him and she allows him to process the situation on his own. “This is only temporary,” he says tearfully in a slurred voice. “Of course it is,” she says comforting him. With a wheelchair likely in my own future, I could relate to his sentiment.

Friends of mine have criticized the movie as being boring and perhaps from a certain point of view it is. My wife would most likely call the movie quiet, an adjective she uses a little differently than most of us. Perhaps the expectations of those going in is for something a little bit more science-y and this is not that movie. It is, as I mentioned before, a love story. One that possesses no loud crescendos, no cosmic triumphs but just sheer will power to make things work and a complete faith that two people have in each other to get them through a severely challenging situation.

It is an inspiring story but I don’t think it is meant to be in the rah-rah sense. Rather, this is just two people getting on with it. The ending to the movie is neither happy nor sad but it is the stuff of everyday life, even if both of the parties in the relationship happen to be extraordinary.

REASONS TO GO: Award-worthy performances by Redmayne and Jones. Some sequences inspire wonder. Is more of a love story than a physics textbook.
REASONS TO STAY: Some sequences are a little dry. Easily offended religious sorts may take umbrage at Hawking’s frankly stated atheism.
FAMILY VALUES: Adult themes and some sexually suggestive material.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: It took screenwriter Anthony McCarten three years to convince Jane Hawking to allow a film version of her book to be made; it took another seven years for him to get the movie made.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 12/15/14: Rotten Tomatoes: 81% positive reviews. Metacritic: 72/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: A Beautiful Mind
FINAL RATING: 7.5/10
NEXT: Horrible Bosses 2

Land of the Lost


Land of the Lost

Welcome to the cosmic trash heap.

(Universal) Will Ferrell, Danny McBride, Anna Friel, Jorma Taccone, Matt Lauer, John Boylan, Brian Huskey, Leonard Nimoy (voice), Dennis McNicholas. Directed by Brad Silberling

The existence of parallel dimensions is a theory many well-known scientists are beginning to take seriously. As of yet, however, the theory is largely unproven, but what if there was a way to actually travel to a parallel universe?

Rick Marshall (Ferrell) is a scientist who thinks he has proven just that. His quantum…er, tachyon…oh hell, just call it a thingamajig and leave it at that…needs a little more financing to get properly tested and Marshall appears on the Today show with Matt Lauer (himself) to explain why the $500 million is so necessary. After Lauer reminds him that most credible scientists think he’s a lunatic, the two wind up getting into a wrestling match. Personally, I think Lauer could school Ferrell. He may be smaller, but you know he’d fight dirty.

The fallout from the Today show appearance is disastrous for Marshall. Already a laughingstock, the Today show footage is a YouTube sensation, and Marshall loses what little credibility he has left. He’s reduced to lecturing elementary school students on the wonders of science until he meets up with Holly Cantrell (Friel), a former Cambridge physics student who dared to find Marshall’s theories worthwhile. For this sin, she was cast out of Cambridge.

When she finds a fossil that appears to be hundreds of millions of years old – of a lighter imprint, she knows that Marshall’s theories are true. Marshall is further blown away when he discovers it’s his own lighter that she found.

Holly takes Rick to the area where she found the fossil, as well as several crystals that seem to be irradiated with tachyons or some such gobbledygook; the main thing is that the location is a cave that has been turned into a tourist trap by redneck fireworks salesman Will Stanton (McBride) who agrees to take the two on a tour of the cave on a yellow inflatable raft. As the tour passes one cheesy tableaux after another, the tachyon detector/ectoplasm reader/tricorder thingy begins to go nuts. Rick turns on his thingamajig, the earth begins to shake, the little stream turns into a raging torrent and the three of them are sucked into a whirlpool o’ doom.

Except that it turns out they aren’t so doomed after all. They wind up in a strange world with several moons, deserts and swamps co-existing side by side, and the detritus of our world in a sort of cosmic trash heap, with cruise ships, ice cream trucks, drive-in movie screens and hotel pools all left to rot away in the garbage dump of the universe.

Unfortunately, there are other things in this place – grumpy tyrannosaurs (who are sensitive about their walnut-sized brains), larcenous pteranodons, lizard people in tunics (whom, as Will sagely notes, you can never trust), and proto-humans with plenty of hair, one of whom named Chaka (Taccone) befriends them. They have also lost their trusty thingamajig so they are stranded there. Can they find their thingamajig so that they can activate the whosis and use its gobbledygook to get them home?

Sid and Marty Krofft, who produced the original television show on which this is based, act as producers so you have to assume that they signed off on all of the changes and updates to their somewhat campy creation (so we can’t make any grave-rolling jokes either). When this came out in the summer of 2009, Da Queen and I originally made plans to see it but the reviews were so uniformly bad that we decided not to.

That’ll teach us for listening to those damned humorless critics. There is actually a sense of whimsy to the movie that I found rather refreshing. There is a running joke about the thingamajig also playing songs from A Chorus Line throughout the movie, which seems to exasperate Will and Holly no end. The look of the movie is deliberately kitschy, not only in a nod to the original series but I think for the laugh factor as well. While some of the CGI creatures are effective, they don’t need to be quite so much here – that’s part of the movie’s charm.

Ferrell has made a career out of playing dumber-than-rocks characters – Ricky Bobby, Ron Burgundy and George W. Bush, among others – and he’s added another one to the list. Marshall spews out factoids on subjects he knows nothing about and it almost always comes back to bite him in the derriere. Ferrell is one of those guys that people either love or they hate. Those who get him swear by him and those who don’t avoid him like the plague.

Anna Friel is in my humble opinion one of the more underrated comic actresses working today, as her work on “Pushing Daisies” and this film show. While ladies like Katherine Heigl get a lot of the higher profile comic roles, Friel is at least as good. It’s a shame she hasn’t really had a big successful movie to bolster her career the way Heigl has had.

The humor is a little scattershot and true to a movie about a place that has a little bit of everything, so too does the script and in situations like that, some things will work and others won’t. However, when the humor works the movie is as funny as anything Ferrell has done in his career (except for maybe his Celebrity Jeopardy skits on SNL – “Your answer is Threeve. I’m sorry, that’s not a number and your wager is…Texas.”) and that’s saying something.

WHY RENT THIS: The art direction is marvelous and there are some pretty nice laughs here. Friel is a much underrated comic actress.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: The humor misfires more often than it hits home. You get the impression Ferrell is trying too hard to be funny.

FAMILY VALUES: There’s some scatological humor, some raunchy sexual humor and some drug references; might be a little too much for smaller children, particularly when it comes to the monsters but otherwise okay for most audiences.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: This is the third version of the Sid and Marty Krofft kids show to be made; in addition to the original TV series and this, there was a second version of the TV show made in 1991 with Timothy Bottoms in the Ferrell role (although he was called “Tom Porter” in that version).

NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: There is a “day in the life of” feature regarding co-star Danny McBride.

FINAL RATING: 6/10

TOMORROW: The Karate Kid (2010)