Director Julie Taymor's ode to The Beatles is a sweeping epic that is bolstered by strong performances, but suffers from a lack of direction. Juxtaposed against the turbulent 1960s and 1970s, Across the Universe addresses the Vietnam War, rioting in Detroit and various assassinations that occurred during that time.
Central to the story is the relationship and love that develops between Jude (played wonderfully by Brit Jim Sturgess) and Lucy (Evan Rachel Wood). The characters express their love by crooning various Beatles songs over the 131-minute running time. Wood and Sturgess do an admirable job singing their own songs, as do Joe Anderson, Dana Fuchs, Martin Luther McCoy and T.V. Carpio. The performances of the actors and their supporting cast are the strength of the film. The movie loses some of its credibility early on when Prudence is introduced as a young Asian cheerleader in small town America. In a country polarized by racial issues and in the midst of a war with Vietnam, it is a stretch to present Prudence as a fully accepted part of a small town high school. The film has a hard time deciding what direction it wants to take, whether as a story of young love or as a protest film where one could substitute Vietnam with the current conflict in Iraq.
The film begins by introducing us to Jude at his home in Liverpool, England where he is having a hard time living the life of a dockworker and is not truly happy with his current girl. On the other side of the world Lucy is saying goodbye to her boyfriend as he is shipped off to his imminent death in Vietnam. Jude, disillusioned and searching for his deadbeat father, an American who had some "fun times" while posted in England during the war, crosses the Atlantic and winds up at Princeton where he befriends Max (Joe Anderson). Max turns out to be Lucy's brother and when he brings Jude home for Thanksgiving, it gives Lucy and Jude their chance meeting. Max drops out of school and invites Jude to road trip with him to New York City where they meet Sadie (Dana Fuchs channelling Joni Mitchell) and JoJo (Martin Luther McCoy aping Jimi Hendrix). Lucy loses her boyfriend and decides to join her brother in New York. This is where love blooms and the story ends.
However, Taymor is not done with you. She decides to introduce everyone to her vision of life on hallucinogenic drugs, which ends up being very psychedelic but detracts from the story. Lucy winds up getting involved in the antiwar movement, Max is sent off to Vietnam and Jude has no cause, content in his ignorance towards the outside world and blinded by his love for Lucy. Enter Bono stage right with his magic bus that takes the troupe on a trip to psychedelic land, adding nothing to the story except an extra 30 minutes. On the bright side, Salma Hayek has a cameo near the end of the film.
Despite the strong performances of Jim Sturgess and his castmates, minus the replaceable Evan Rachel Wood. Across the Universe lacks a true narrative and suffers from Taymor's desire to create a sweeping epic when it should have been treated as a popcorn love story.