Review: “The Theory Of Everything” Is Oscar Bait And Not Much Else
Title: The Theory of Everything
Director: James Marsh
Screenwriter: Anthony McCarten (screenplay) and Jane Hawking (book “Traveling to Infinity: My Life with Stephen”)
Principal Cast: Eddie Redmayne, Felicity Jones, David Thewlis, Charlie Cox, Harry Llyod, and Simon McBurney
This is going to be another film where I have a hard time figuring out how to word exactly how I feel. The Theory of Everything is getting a lot of positive buzz, and people are saying that Eddie Redmayne is probably going to either win or get a lot of awards this coming winter. However, I have very specific feelings when it comes to biopic movies and their place in popular culture, so despite all of the positive buzz, I was more than a little leery. I find Professor Hawking to be a fascinating person, and I don’t know that much about his life, so I was eager to know more; but there was a spectre that hung over this movie that was hard to ignore. I tried to have as open a mind as possible, or to at least adjust my expectations.
The Theory of Everything is a well acted biopic about one of the greatest minds, but fails to be anything more than Oscar bait.
In 1963 young Stephen Hawking is undecided about what field he wants to do his graduate studies in when he meets a young woman named Jane. Despite the fact that they disagree on some very key points, namely the existence of God, Jane and Stephen get along very well. Everything seems to be going well until Stephen collapses one day and is diagnosed with a motor neuron disease. They tell him he has two years to live, and despite the death sentence Stephen and Jane get married as Stephen seeks to unravel the origin of the universe before his body deteriorates completely.
There are three things that kneecap The Theory of Everything before it even comes out of the gate. The first thing is that it is based on the life of a person that is still alive. I believe that it’s extremely hard to make a movie about someone’s life when they are still alive. This is the same problem that Iron Ladyhad, the biopic about Margaret Thatcher, and to an extent The Social Network as well. (I emphasize that I think The Social Network is brilliant, but it does have flaws and this is one). It’s hard to be critical of someone who is still alive, and if someone is getting a movie made about their life they must have been influential in some way. The Theory of Everything does an okay job of portraying that Professor Hawking wasn’t the best husband perhaps, but that might be because the source material was written by Jane and not Hawking himself. However, the movie merely shows a man being stubborn about his illness. That is really the closest they come to painting Professor Hawking in any sort of negative light. I don’t blame them because Stephen Hawking is still alive and he could lash out at the movie, discredit it entirely, or even pursue some form of legal action, so I can understand their hesitation, but I believe it hurts the film overall.
The second thing that hurts The Theory of Everything is that it doesn’t seem to exist for any reason other than to win Oscars. These types of films are often referred to as “Oscar Bait” and we all know the type of movie I’m talking about. The King’s Speech is probably the best example I can think of off the top of my head, and it’s the movie I kept mentally comparing the The Theory of Everything to. This is a hard thing for me to articulate, but I suppose the best way to explain it is that I would appreciate this movie a lot more if it wasn’t released right now so that it could be an Oscar contender. While I believe that Birdman is also Oscar bait, it felt like it at least came from a sincere place (like the filmmakers might have an Oscar bait film as a finished product, but that was secondary). I got the impression that the desire to tell the story was the most important thing. The Theory of Everything, however, doesn’t feel sincere at all. I didn’t get the impression that the filmmakers really wanted to tell this story as much they wanted to win awards. This might not be true, and there is a good chance that’s the case, but that’s not the impression I walked away with. I do wonder how Professor Hawking would react if someone told him the story of his life has been made into Oscar bait.
The final thing that hampered this movie for me is the fact that it’s based on a true story. I’m not saying that making a movie based on a true story is a bad thing, in fact it can sometimes be the only way to present history to the audience, but it can be distracting to some viewers such as yours truly. Whenever something particularly dramatic would happen, I found myself thinking about how accurate this really is. In a way I almost wish I had more time to write this review to see if I could find everything that doesn’t fit. It also falls into the tried and true trap of losing all drama. For example, Hawking falls very ill later in his life, and we’re told he might not make it but we already know he does because he’s still alive today. It’s the same problem that kills the drama and tension for prequels; we know how this ends and it stops the flow of the film dead in its tracks.
All of the things I’ve talked about makes it sound like I didn’t like The Theory of Everything, but that isn’t true. It was really quite a good film that had some absolutely great performances. Eddie Redmayne really does deserve all of the praise he is getting. He does an absolutely stunning job of capturing the little ticks that came with Professor Hawking’s deteriorating condition, right down to the way he uses his hands and facial expressions. Felicity Jones does a great job of keeping up with Redmayne as Jane. She is extremely sympathetic and she really makes you understand what it must have been like to watch the man she loved slowly lose all use of his limbs. There is also some great supporting work by the great David Thewlis as Dennis Sciama, Hawking’s mentor, but I referred to him as Professor Lupin from Harry Potter far too many times in my head. Charlie Cox also makes an appearance (before he signs his soul over to Marve)l as Jonathan Jones, a young man who befriends the Hawking family. The entire cast puts in quality performances and have great chemistry.
The direction is a little paint by numbers, but James Marsh is a documentary director which is interesting. I almost think he would have done a better job with a documentary on Professor Hawking, rather than a dramatic telling of his life. Marsh doesn’t shy away from the disease, and spends a lot of time focused on the little things like Hawking’s hands and feet, to show them unable to function properly. There were a lot of little details I like such as the scuff marks on Hawking’s shoes from when he drags his feet. The score by Jóhann Jóhannsson is also very well done, and the cinematography by Benoît Delhomme does a great job of capturing that almost “sepia” look that we mentally add to the past. There are times when the pacing becomes a little slow, but those are moments when the drama is cut short by the knowledge that he is still alive that I spoke of earlier. This also is a slower moving genre of cinema,, so I feel like I can’t really hold it against the film
The Theory of Everything might be Oscar bait but it tells an interesting story about one of the greatest minds the world has ever known. There are a lot of great performances here, and if this sort of movie is your thing then it’s worth checking out. However, if it’s not then I say you can wait until it appears on Netflix or Redbox. The best parts of the performances will be shown during the award shows, anyway.