Once upon a time, during the movie industry’s salad days, a stuntman lay awake and unmoving in a Los Angeles hospital bed. His back and his spirit had been broken. The stuntman was suicidally depressed; his fiancée had left him for his movie’s leading man.
Among the hospital’s other guests was a little girl with a broken arm, whom the stuntman befriended and exploited. He improvised an elaborate bedtime-story fable of variously swashbuckling outlaws on a common quest. He ended each chapter on a cliffhanger, so as to leave the little girl always in suspense. That way he could oblige her to steal drugs for him. “It’s no different than stealing bread from a church,” he told her, explaining that the drugs would ease his pain. He didn’t tell her he’d be using them to off himself. But because she trusted him and opened her young heart to him, the girl became emotionally involved with the stuntman’s story. And so did he.
And so might you. Whether you’ll like The Fall probably can be determined in advance, in fact, by what you once figured would become of the guy who made the video for R.E.M.’s “Losing My Religion.” If, for instance, you’re now thinking, “’Losing My Religion?’ That was ages ago; I can’t even remember that video, but I’m sure it was pretentious,” well, you’ve got an idea already of what to expect from The Fall. If you’re thinking, “Oh yeah, that video was genius! I’ll bet the guy who made that could do wonders with a flamboyantly arty, homoerotic, convoluted take on The Princess Bride, set in spectacular locations throughout the world,” well, have we got the movie for you.
The guy is director Tarsem Singh, but you can just call him Tarsem, because he’s trying really hard to work that one-name angle. He also directed 2000’s The Cell, a slick and hollow thriller with Jennifer Lopez. But The Fall is something else. Actually, it’s hard to say what it is. For its self-enchanting sprawl and visual richness, it’ll get filed near the films of Alejandro Jodorowsky and Terry Gilliam, not to mention Tarsem’s fellow music-video maestro Michel Gondry. But that doesn’t necessarily mean it will distinguish itself.
The script is by Tarsem and Dan Gilroy and Nico Soultanakis, and it’s an adaptation of the 1981 film Yo Ho Ho, written by Valeri Petrov and directed by Zako Heskija. In Tarsem’s telling, the stuntman’s tale evolves not just according to his own deteriorating mind and mood but also through essential contributions from the girl’s observant imagination. This turns out to be a good excuse for The Fall to come on like a stampede of set pieces. Literally, it’s all over the place, shot in a dozen different countries … or was it 18 … or 26? Reports vary, probably on purpose. Other highlights include many flattering views of the strapping swashbucklers, a swimming elephant, an animated tattooed body map of the wonders of the world, a dazzling match cut between a human face and a desert landscape, plus several more fantastical and technically extraordinary compositions for which words seem inadequate.
Clearly the filmmaker, like his storytelling stuntman, is rather a compulsive, self-indulgent fabulist himself. But of course, this is how makers of music videos have been trained and encouraged to behave: like junkies looking to score that next arresting, mood-making image. Sometimes The Fall seems downright obsequious; at other times, Tarsem seems so busy minding his ministrations and giving props to his artistic influences that he can’t even be bothered to wonder whether you’ll even care.
Thank goodness, then, for the rapport that develops between the stuntman, played by Lee Pace, a charmer with soulful eyes, and the girl, played by future heartbreaker Catinca Untaru. Clearly, Tarsem intended their jaunty, half-improvised-seeming scenes to unfold organically, in a sometimes rough-edged contrast to his carefully controlled fable. It’s a gracious way of allowing his audience some real instead of manufactured feelings. And at times, it even works. What’s lovely and surprising about The Fall is the tenderness and intimacy these two characters actually do achieve, each through unabashedly proprietary attachments to the tale within their tale.
“It’s my story,” the stuntman said near the end of his telling. “Mine too,” the little girl rebuked. Whether it had a happy ending is for you to decide.