By Eleanor Ringel Cater
It’s rarely fair weather in “Cloud Atlas,” a movie that can sometimes be as pretentious as its title.
The thing is, I LIKE the title of David Mitchell’s best seller. You may wish to take that as an early guide: if you are turned off by the title and/or the book, maybe you need to stick to “Argo.” Which, if nothing else, works fine as a straightforward thriller.
However, like many an aging hippie, I was fascinated by the movie’s Other Lives, Other Times, Other Souls narrative. “Cloud Atlas” time-warps through 6 different stories, some set in the past, some in the near present and others in an imagined future (actually two futures, one in 2346, the other in 2144). The cast hops, skips and jumps as well; the protagonist of one tale may be a bit player in another.
Since none of the plotlines is particularly hard to follow, the almost 3-hour film is more like a tapas tray than a rich multi-course feast. But then, nobody said the plot(s) were what made “2001” memorable either.
Sibling directors Andy and Lana (formerly Larry) Wachowski, of “The Matrix” fame, and Tom Tykwer, whose “Run Lola Run,” was another tale of time splintered, want us to think metaphysically. To see how a greedy 19th-century ship’s doctor (Tom Hanks) could eventually morph (reincarnate as?) into a brave cave dweller of the far future who speaks a broken English that oddly recalls the Gullah and Geechee spoken on the South Carolina coast.
In between, he’s a pugnacious author, a corporate type, and several other beings of various races and genders. Hanks stays the course (of being recognizably Hanks) more than his lesser-known cast-mates, but that ‘s the essential idea: that we are the stuff that dreams are made of, but with interchangeable parts, kind of like a Lego set.
Halle Berry is the star of the early ’70s segment, a kind of “Get Christie Love” meets “Silkwood.” She travels to the far, far future as well and hovers around the edges of other stories in various disguises. Jim Broadbent is scary as an egotistical celebrated composer of the 1930s and silly (in the right way) as a publisher incarcerated in a mental asylum masquerading as a pleasant retirement community. Hugo Weaving turns up in all six stories; in the retirement home, he’s in drag as a variation on Nurse Ratched. And yes, that’s actually Hugh Grant as a rainbow-hued heavy trying to kill Hanks sometime in the distant future.
The most touching story involves a pair of lovers (Ben Wishaw and James D’Arcy) in the 1930s. The funniest is Jim Broadbent’s “Cuckoo’s Nest” sojourn. The most fascinating is the clone-story, which mixes Pinocchio and “Metropolis” (Bae Doona is beyond smashing)
The overall effect calls to mind D.W. Griffith’s massive “Intolerance” which used a similar mesh of not-very-deep stories, tied to a single moral vision (“Out of the cradle, endlessly rocking”).
However, “Intolerance” is a masterpiece. “Cloud Atlas,” alas, is not. The movie can work for you but it calls for patience and even a kind of forgiveness that says yes, we are what we do — past, present or future. And I can’t help it. I’m a sucker for the moral that the greatest gift, perhaps, is simple human kindness.