There's nothing I love nearly so much as a bold, exuberant overreach, the kind where you know the guy leaping into the air to pull it off is destined for a spectacular face-plant, possibly several times over, before getting back up to keep doing it until he gets it right or passes out from exhaustion. And what's better than one person going for it that way? Three people, of course. All at once.
Andy and Lana Wachowski Starship have teamed up with Tom Run Lola Run Tykwer for a kaleidoscopic blizzard of human mega-connection that'll have you following six stories at once, while every major actor in the cast -- Tom Hanks, Halle Berry, Jim Broadbent, Susan Sarandon, Hugh Grant, Hugo Weaving, Keith David, Jim Sturgess, Ben Whishaw and Doona Bae -- pulls off (and does not pull off) a variety of races, genders, historical moments, speech patterns and cheekbones. A lot of people working overtime for you. And the end product is nearly three hours of tattoo-cheeked, latex-foreheaded, sex-changing, goofy-accented soaring and crashing in the service of freedom, a six-tentacled creature of cosmic heaviness.
The plots interlock and overlap: A runaway slave in the 19th century intervenes in the life of the man who helped him; a publisher on the lam from thugs is committed to a nursing home against his will; an investigative journalist tracks an anti-nuclear energy conspiracy; a gay composer in the 1930s takes drastic measures to keep his music out of the hands of his evil employer; a Korean waitress in the future instigates a revolution; a post-historic tribe of exiles are lent a helping hand by an advanced alien from Planet Who Knows Where. And every story directly or tangentially connects, every character mirrors a spiritual doppelganger in another time and place, every act of betrayal, cruelty or kindness reverberates through history, revealing quick turnarounds of death, rebellion, domination, even cannibalism. One plot thread describes the whole throbbing mess as an infinite figure eight crisscrossed by infinite numbers of figure skaters, the kind of stuff you talk about after you've read just enough in your freshman philosophy textbook to get you into an endlessly dumb stoner conversation.
With three creators working to seamlessly tell multiple stories and interpret the novel by David Mitchell in a way that makes cinematic rather than literary sense, pinning down a single precise meaning or motivation is a game you could play all day. And reading the entire film as Lana Wachowski's transgender coming-out statement is too reductive. It's in there, of course, and not just the parts where Hugo Weaving plays the meanest female nursing-home employee in the world. But that's not all there is. There's a lot of everything.
A lot of too much, in fact. The filmmakers have bitten off way more than even three people can chew and that unwieldy quality is also what pushes it toward exhilaration. It's silly and tonally jarring, but silly can be endearing. It's also moving, something sci-fi doesn't often accomplish. And at times it's impossible to understand, thanks to Tom Hanks' future-caveman-as-Jar Jar Binks dialogue. But most of all it's a code switcher: an action film, a reassertion of Speed Racer's gorgeous anime color assault, a religious movie of deep thoughts for the medium-deep, a cracked bohemian liberation manifesto that feels like a non-singing, time-travel remix of Baz Luhrmann's Moulin Rouge -- one where the Gentlemen Prefer Blondes references are swapped for Soylent Green but where all that "truth, beauty, freedom and love" stuff still takes invisible bows from center stage.
Walk out after 20 minutes and you'll shortchange yourself, missing the complete experience of a movie taking a big goofy dare. Just stay put and show some respect for its enormous, ridiculous, mystical balls. They're huge.