Let's get the obvious out of the way: Stephen Hawking is one of the most important minds of his generation, and a strong contender for smartest person on the planet. His accomplishments in the realm of scientific discovery are nothing short of astonishing, and the fact that he has achieved all that he has despite a physical condition many thought would kill him long ago makes him one of the world's most inspirational living figures. In short, Mr. Hawking is great, but there's a difference between admiring a person and admiring a film about a great person. The Theory of Everything finds a way to make Hawking's unique, distinctive life feel like something we've seen a million times before. What should be an enthralling journey into the mind of a genius is instead turned into something resembling a second-rate A Beautiful Mind imitation.
I found myself groaning within the first minute, as the film opens with a shot of Hawking (Eddie Redmayne, Les Miserables) in his wheelchair, followed immediately by a flashback to a much younger version of Hawking joyfully riding a bicycle with the carefree enthusiasm of a man who has no idea he'll one day be paralyzed. Oh, the irony. This is a movie which distills most of Hawking's big ideas into simplistic images, such as the moment when a conversation about turning back time inspires Hawking's girlfriend Jane (Felicity Jones, The Amazing Spider-Man 2) to grab his arms and start spinning him around counterclockwise (“I'm turning back time!” she cries, in case we missed the point). Later, the film illustrates the writing of Hawking's A Brief History of Time by showing him thoughtfully adding the word “Brief” to his original title and smiling to himself. The Theory of Everything feels less like a proper movie than a two-hour adaptation of the film's theatrical trailer – lots of sweeping, conventional, sentimental gestures without any real substance.
In fairness, the movie isn't exclusively about Hawking's career. The posters specifically note that this is the story of “Jane and Stephen Hawking,” and it does indeed spend a sizable portion of the running time detailing their relationship. Alas, their early scenes together are lifeless, formulaic and blandly-staged; scenes of awkward introductions and budding connections that feel pulled directly from the “Touching Movie Romance 101” playbook. Just about everything in the movie – from the moments of medical drama to the argument scenes to Hawking's big climactic speech - feels so calculated, as if a computer has assembled a film from pieces of other Oscar bait biopics.
I don't have anything against Eddie Redmayne in general, but I found his performance here consistently distracting. It's more impersonation than inhabitation, which often happens when an actor is playing a living person who is still very much in the public eye (recall Josh Brolin's performance as the title character in Oliver Stone's W., or the performances of John Michael Higgins and Daniel Roebuck as David Letterman and Jay Leno in HBO's The Late Shift). Once Hawking is diagnosed with ALS and his body begins to shut down, Redmayne increasingly gives into the temptation to telegraph every unspoken thought and emotion. It's a showy performance, but not a convincing one: I never forgot I was watching an actor wrestling with a challenging role.
Jones fares better as Jane, who eventually transforms into the film's most compelling character. She agreed to marry Stephen even after learning of his diagnosis, and vowed to love him no matter what. However, when she made that decision, she believed that he would only live a couple of years. She finds herself trapped in an emotional cage of guilt and desire: genuinely happy that Stephen continues to defy the odds and survive, but increasingly aware that she's being asked to deal with more than she signed up for. She yearns for certain things Stephen is incapable of providing (physical intimacy, yes, but also religious solidarity), and eventually finds solace in the arms of a church choir leader (Charlie Cox, Stardust). Later, Stephen finds himself more attracted to his nurse Elaine (Maxine Peak, Run & Jump) than he is to Jane. If the film manages to avoid convention in any way, it's in the quiet acknowledgment that love doesn't always conquer all, that infidelity is a common occurrence and that sometimes people who were once convinced they would spend all of life together find that they would much rather spend life with someone else. It's one of the few instances in which the film simply can't find a way to sand the edges off the real lives of its complicated characters.
Otherwise, we're stuck with a cookie cutter Great Man biopic which follows the usual rise-fall-rise structure without offering much personality. It's a handsomely-crafted movie, in the way that many of those artificially “prestigious” Miramax movies used to be, but fundamentally an empty one. Comparing Oscar bait to Oscar bait: the aforementioned A Beautiful Mind and the Alan Turing biopic The Imitation Game both take more creative liberties with the brainy, troubled real-life men they depict, but both of those movies benefit considerably from strong, distinctive central performances and direction which offers a bracing sense of immediacy. The Theory of Everything, alternately, feels like an attempt to preserve Hawking's life in amber. It's tasteful and tidy to the point of flavorlessness. This story deserves better.
The Theory of Everything
Rating: ★★ (out of four)
MPAA Rating: PG-13
Running Time: 123 minutes
Release Year: 2014