What more could one ask for in 2022—with the film industry in such precarious turmoil, with so much adventure put on hold while spiral bands of disease sweep across the globe—than a big Hollywood spectacular in which two movie stars go to a far flung locale for a dangerous, sexy escapade? That is the great promise of The Lost City (in theaters March 25), which features Sandra Bullock as a frustrated, but successful, romance novelist and Channing Tatum as the dreamboat who has posed for all of her steamy book covers. What a gas!
The Lost City has a funny shape to it. On the one hand, its programmatic setup—familiar to fans of Romancing the Stone or (to a lesser extent) Raiders of the Lost Ark—feels easy, like it’s built on fast rails. Yet in that assumption of ease lies a difficulty. An airy star vehicle like this takes a lot of work, but shouldn’t look like it does. Unfortunately, The Lost City (directed by Adam and Aaron Nee) seems exhausted by its task from the outset.
Bullock plays Loretta, who is struggling to finish the latest book in her hot-and-throbbing romance-adventure series, gloomy from the loss of her husband and sour about the state of her work. She’s an intellect who should be off making great discoveries with her archeologist husband, not stuck pandering to the middling American masses. Bullock is good at such prickly discomfort, but a little of it goes a long way. In The Lost City, though, she’s asked to maintain that dyspepsia for nearly the entire run of the film. It’s a single, relentlessly repeated note that weighs down a film that should bounce, not trudge. (At least Bullock’s high aptitude for physical comedy is put to good, if too brief, use.)
Perhaps the calculation was that Tatum, as dopey Alan, would add the goofiness and levity necessary to offset Bullock’s peevishness. He tries to do that, and he and Bullock’s chemistry does sometimes sparkle and fizz enough to keep the movie afloat. But we’ve also seen this shtick from Tatum perhaps too many times before: the hunk who’s actually a guileless sweetheart, a dork in himbo packaging. His decency is so immediately telegraphed in the film that there’s no room for the happy surprise of a character turn.
What could rescue, or at least brighten up, these uninspired performances is a remotely engaging story. But The Lost City flounders in that arena as well. The gist is that something Loretta wrote in her newest novel accidentally syncs up with an I.R.L. search for a lost bauble of old, rumored to be buried somewhere on a remote island in the Atlantic. (I think its closest real-world analog would be a distant Canary Island.) Daniel Radcliffe gamely plays the jilted son of a Murdoch-esque media empire who has become obsessed with finding this object of myth. So obsessed, in fact, that he’s willing to kidnap Loretta to help in his search. Alan goes bumbling after Loretta in an attempt to prove that he can live up to the derring-do of the man he plays on book covers.
That’s a perfectly workable setup for the kind of movie that The Lost City is trying to be. Yet the Nees seem to swat away every opportunity to expand on that blueprint, to give it texture beyond the mere formula. The wan action sequences—filmed in the Dominican Republic, but given enough CGI zhushing to look like nowhere—lack the loopy, harum scarum physics of past films in this genre. And the jokes, when there are any, mostly fall flat, perhaps owed to the script’s committee construction—the Nees, Oren Uziel, and Dana Fox all share writing credit. There are only two truly guffaw-worthy moments in the film, both of them coming from the brilliant comedian-actor Patti Harrison, who plays a social-media minded publicist on Loretta’s team. Harrison, one of the funniest performers working today, is bitterly missed when she’s not on screen; if only she’d been invited along on the trip.
The Lost City has the bad tang of squandered potential, misusing its massively appealing stars and failing the possibility of its premise. (That said, the possibility only goes so far. The romance-novel cover-model conceit—which is really just an extended Fabio joke—seems like a decades-old idea hastily dusted off for these modern purposes.) Or perhaps my expectations were simply too high, hoping that this film would be tenuous evidence of something—proof that the movie gods have heard our pleas and will once again bless us with breezy, non-franchise entertainments.
Maybe the film doesn’t deserve that onus. Then again, it has been positioned, marketing-wise, as just that. It wants us to greet it as the grand return of something lost. A shame, then—if not exactly a surprise—that it’s but a gift-shop knockoff, while the real treasure remains out there somewhere, too long moldering in the jungle.
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