Review by Scott Cole
Directors: Aaron Nee and Adam Nee
Starring: Sandra Bullock, Channing Tatum, Daniel Radcliffe, Brad Pitt, Da’Vine Joy Randolph,
* * (2 stars out of 5)
There’s a strange energy in a movie theater when watching a romantic comedy that is not really working. You try to force out any intruding thoughts and simply focus on the characters in the context of the film, but your brain is also doing calculations behind the scenes to account for what exactly is missing. In a large majority of romcoms, the answer is simple and painfully obvious: bad chemistry between the leads sinks the ship. A film like The Lost City is a unique and curious case because it stars Sandra Bullock and Channing Tatum, two very likeable and capable comedic actors who do seem to have genuine chemistry between them. In this case, sadly, it is a regrettably weak screenplay that lets them down time and time again.
Obvious to anyone who has seen the trailer, The Lost City owes a massive debt to Robert Zemeckis’ 1984 action-adventure romantic comedy Romancing the Stone featuring the explosive chemistry of Michael Douglas and Kathleen Turner (they would team up again for two more films). What might come as a shock to viewers who have seen the ads is how staggeringly light The Lost City actually is on the action-adventure front. After an early well-crafted action sequence – featuring a goofy turn by Brad Pitt poking fun at his pretty boy persona – the movie leans far more into a very predictable rhythm with Bullock and Tatum trudging through the jungle from comic set piece to comic set piece all the while talking each other’s ear off with endlessly quippy banter.
Bullock stars as Loretta Sage, a successful writer of self-described “shlock” novels revolving around exotic locales and a romantic hero named Dash. As we meet her, she is struggling to finish her latest Dash novel The Lost City of D (which was the original title of the film) as she is still mourning the death of her archaeologist husband 5 years prior. After completing the book, the book tour begins with Loretta forced to promote the book along with Alan (Tatum), the handsome cover model of her paperbacks playing the role of Dash. Things take an abrupt turn after the first tour appearance when Loretta is abducted by Abigail Fairfax (Daniel Radcliffe), a very strange billionaire who believes that the lost city Loretta waxes romantic about is an actual place and treasure trove and Loretta will help lead him there. Once it is realized that Loretta has been taken, Alan takes it upon himself to rescue her.
The film has no less than four writers (including the directors Aaron and Adam Nee) and is based on a story by well-known TV producer Seth Gordon, so it is kind of amazing that much of the dialogue sounds a lot like actors struggling to liven up scenes with improvisation. The tone of their constant back-and-forth reminded me of the recent adventure/hidden treasure film Uncharted in that they both position the leads at a stalemate where they keep one-upping each other and trying to get the last word. It’s a conversational style that became popular with the Judd Apatow comedies of the 2000s, but here the flow seems off and relies too much on pop culture references which almost always date a film significantly. Imagine someone rewatching this 20 years from now. What are they supposed to make of a “hashtag Shawn Mendes” joke, for example?
Again, the problem is not with the actors. Bullock and Tatum both bring a nice level of relaxed ease and charm to their roles, and you can see that they could be good together in another movie with another script. As they eventually end up on the run fighting the bad guys and the harsh jungle elements, the movie tries to give us the “will they/won’t they” energy of Cybill Shepherd and Bruce Willis in TV’s Moonlighting but the level of writing just is not there. And considering the film all but forgets it’s an action-adventure until the last 30 minutes, all we have to work with are the two of them wandering around negging each other, occasionally taking a break for more serious and solemn scenes for them to develop feelings for each other like a random dance sequence and one in which Bullock describes Tatum’s back rash to him in romance novel language (I’m not kidding).
But truly God bless Daniel Radcliffe. He easily walks away with the movie in only a fraction of screen time giving a truly funny and inspired performance and breathing new life into a tired villain role. In a career that began being cast in the role of a generation in the Harry Potter series, Radcliffe has taken a similar path to his compatriot Robert Pattinson in that they have both broken out of the blockbuster series that introduced them and defined themselves with interesting work time and time again. In The Lost City, Radcliffe is clearly having a blast and makes Abigail such a very specific type of sniveling rodent. Listen to the wicked delivery when he orders his henchmen to “Kill him creatively!” In much smaller supporting roles, Da’Vine Joy Randolph and Patti Harrison also have smaller fun moments to shine but, like Radcliffe, more because of their acting choices rather than the screenplay.
Although I don’t think The Lost City is a successful film, I will say that it is not a boring one and does contain some moments of charm and fun. It reminded me of Ivan Reitman’s Six Days, Seven Nights (1998) where the actors are having fun, the locations are great, and the audience is willing to be taken on the ride… but you just wish the movie had tried harder at the screenplay level. Naturally you will get a massive star like Sandra Bullock, supposedly suffering through the harsh jungle, always in full makeup but with slightly tousled hair and a few strategic patches of dirt placed on her neck – that’s all part of the fun. But the movie doesn’t pull its own weight in making this material take flight. For the type of movie The Lost City purports to be, it is simply not funny enough and sadly lacking in action or adventure.