Javier Bardem is a deeply expressive actor — we’ve seen him move audiences without saying a word. Sally Potter is an artist who has used dance, music, video and film (Orlando, Yes) with a forceful experimental fervor. Sadly, the first collaboration between these two in The Roads Not Taken stubbornly refuses to come to life. For the filmmaker, the project is clearly personal. The image of Bardem as Leo, an author lying near comatose in bed in his drab Brooklyn apartment, evokes the same kind of early-onset dementia that afflicted Potter’s younger brother Nic, a British painter, composer and bassist for the rock band Van der Graaf Generator. With his eyes glazed over in reverie about roads he never took in his life, Leo seems unreachable.
Then his daughter Molly (Elle Fanning) arrives to relieve Leo’s caretaker and take the man she lovingly calls “papa” to seemingly mundane appointments with a dentist and an optometrist. But even ordinary activities seem out of her father’s reach as he keeps flashing back to a past that may be real or imagined. At one point, he is living in Mexico with first wife Dolores (Salma Hayek), the self-proclaimed great love of his life until the death of their son — a fact Leo can’t accept — causes a rift that won’t heal.
Later, we see him on a Greek island where he runs for inspiration, leaving behind second wife Rita (Laura Linney) and the infant Molly. Flirting on the beach with a blonde beauty (who wonders why anyone would desert a wife and child to write a book), Leo seems adrift in the fragments of his past, wondering how sticking with the women who loved him would, or could, have changed his predicament.
Kudos to the fine Irish cinematographer Robbie Ryan (Fish Tank, Marriage Story) for building sharp contrasts between the protagonist’s flamboyant past and his drab, imprisoning present. If only Potter had provided a similarly coherent narrative road map. There are reports that a third segment, in which Leo imagines another parallel life with a gay lover played by Chris Rock, had been jettisoned. Would it have helped? That’s doubtful, given that this head-scratching muddle of a film runs a scant 85 minutes and still feels overlong.
Back in the present, Leo is a pale shadow of his former self, freaked out by the noise of the city and the clatter inside his head. Peeing his pants, and causing commotion in a store when he seizes a woman’s dog that reminds him of his beloved childhood pet Nestor, he’s tragically adrift. “Get out of my country,” screams the aggrieved dog owner, suggesting an immigration theme the film quickly and frustratingly abandons. Later, when Leo jumps out of a moving taxi, Molly must take him to the ER where he seems on the verge of nervous collapse. In the hospital, an embittered Rita visits, berating her ex for his desertion and insisting that he never got over her success as a writer in a career that eclipsed his.
None of this penetrates the wall that frontal-lobe atrophy has built around Leo. The disease, by its very nature, would prevent such a breakthrough. It’s Molly who occasionally gets through to her papa and Fanning, who worked beautifully with Potter on 2012’s Ginger & Rosa, delivers a heartfelt performance that provides the only emotional bridge for an audience to cross. For the rest, The Roads Not Taken leaves us feeling as lost as Leo. There’s no doubting Potter’s laudable ambition to capture the swirling headspace of her brother, who died in 2013. But in trying to restore his dignity in fighting the dying of the light, she’s neglected to portray him in the human terms that would let us share his spirit.
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