Combustible Celluloid
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With: Reese Witherspoon, Laura Dern, Thomas Sadoski, Michiel Huisman, Gaby Hoffmann, Kevin Rankin, W. Earl Brown, Mo McRae, Keene McRae
Written by: Nick Hornby, based on a book by Cheryl Strayed
Directed by: Jean-Marc Vallée
MPAA Rating: R for sexual content, nudity, drug use, and language
Running Time: 115
Date: 12/05/2014

Wild (2014)

2 1/2 Stars (out of 4)

Mild 'Wild'

By Jeffrey M. Anderson

Need an Oscar? Just call on the Canadian-born Jean-Marc Vallée. His movies are entirely without personality, and they're rather dutiful and not particularly interesting to sit through, but they sure appeal to tastemakers and awards voters. The Young Victoria (2009) was a soulless costume movie that won Best Costume Design, and Dallas Buyers Club (2013) was a rather flat rendition of a "true story" that featured two showy roles for Matthew McConaughey and Jared Leto and won Best Actor and Best Supporting Actor for them. Now Reese Witherspoon has become a serious contender for Best Actress for Wild.

As with Dallas Buyers Club, the actual true story behind the new movie is admirable, but a bad movie can always be made out of a great subject. As a film critic, it's important not to get the importance of someone's life mixed up with the art of the cinema. The real-life Cheryl Strayed (she made up her own last name) pulled off a hugely difficult feat, hiking over 1000 miles at a point in her life when everything had fallen apart, and she needed... something. She apparently found whatever it was she needed, and I applaud her for it. I probably couldn't have done it.

Now, in the movie Wild, the fictional Strayed character, as played gamely and likably by Reese Witherspoon, her journey appears as a series of terrible things that almost happen to her, and a series of good things that are pretty much just handed to her. Vallée starts the movie with the typical "unrelated scene" -- which filmmakers use when the actual beginning of the story is too boring -- which has Cheryl pulling off her injured toenails and howling in pain. This is just about the only thing in the movie that's actually "wild." The rest of it is pretty dull.

Cheryl brings the wrong fuel for her camp stove and is forced to eat cold gruel for the first leg of her trip. She meets a farmer and asks for help. For a while, it seems like she's going to be raped or murdered, but it turns out he's a nice guy and invites her home to meet his wife and have a home-cooked meal. Then some nice campers help her lighten her pack and warn her about snow. She receives care packages every so often at various stages. She meets more nice people. When she reaches checkpoints, she writes famous literary quotes next to her name as if she had coined them. She gets lost in the snow, but a couple of skiers whiz by her, indicating that she's not THAT lost. She runs into a couple of fearsome redneck hunters, and for a while it seems like she's going to be raped or murdered, but they eventually just go away.

During all this, she has flashbacks to her hard life, with her single mom (Laura Dern), who has recently died of cancer. The movie doesn't skimp on various doctor/hospital scenes to make the movie seem even more serious and important. Dern will no doubt be considered for an Oscar as well, as anyone who plays a cancer patient invariably is. The flashbacks also include Cheryl's temporary descent into wanton sex and drugs as a way of dealing -- more howls of rage and pain that make good Oscar show clips.

What I don't get is how Nick Hornby of all people came to be credited with the screenplay. His writing is sometimes self-exploratory, but frequently witty and self-effacing. There are no laughs here, and no feeling of self-awareness. Regardless of what the real Strayed felt, the character onscreen is just a little too flatlined, like she's never truly tested. It feels more like a long and physically demanding vacation than anything life-changing. In other words, Strayed's inner journey for herself doesn't really work as an outer journey for a movie audience.

But that's Vallée's gift as a filmmaker. He can take a weak film and frost it just enough around the edges so that it seems profound. At least long enough to please Oscar voters. But is it a lasting work of art?

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