Movie a Day Blog generally tries to avoid reading popular books because before they are adapted into movies. This strategy worked well with GONE GIRL (2014, Movie a Day Blog 10/7/14), where I knew none of the impending twists and turns, and therefore enjoyed the movie more than the book readers I spoke to, many of whom seemed disappointed with the literal nature of the adaptation.
But I couldn’t resist reading WILD (2014, Theatrical) by Cheryl Strayed. My wife and I read aloud to each other at dinner, and Strayed became a valued companion over countless meals. She made us laugh and she made us cry, as cliched as that might sound, but isn’t that what great books should do?
Alas, the film version fails on both counts, and several others to boot (no pun intended for the opening scene of the book and the film, in which one of Strayed’s hiking books goes sailing off a cliff, leaving her shod in duct tape and hiking socks).
Reese Witherspoon, who wisely gave up the lead role in GONE GIRL to Rosamund Pike at the insistence of director David Fincher and ended up just producing the film, could not resist this time around. It is good to see an actress exercise her power at the boxoffice (and an Academy Award for Best Actress in WALK THE LINE (2006) ), although she has mysteriously erased her starring appearance in a film I produced, S.F.W. (1994) as if it never occurred. It’s easy to discard your early failures when you’ve made it to the top.
She doesn’t stay there in WILD, a disappointment as a film unto itself, not to mention a clueless adaptation by the talented and usually reliable British novelist and screenwriter Nick Hornby (ABOUT A BOY, 2002).
Witherspoon seems cranky and under-motivated for her trek, which magically gets easier without any of the sweat and pain Strayed described so vividly in her memoir. Her backpack, nicknamed The Monster, indeed looks heavy the first time she tries to lift it, but after that, it’s like the empty suitcases used in Hollywood films of the 1930s and 40s, when baggage was as light as air.
It can, of course, be difficult to portray rewarding solitude on one of the most challenging hikes in North America, the Pacific Coast Trail which Strayed follows from the deserts of Southern California to the Oregon-Washington border and the aptly named Bridge of the Gods. In the book, getting there was all the fun, thanks to Strayed’s brutal self-examination, pungent commentary on the obstacles nature put in her path, and her irrepressible spirit.
None of those aspects make it successfully into the film. Hornby uses flashbacks in lieu of voice-over, and it’s a disastrous choice, making the narrative choppy and unsatisfying, devoid of any dramatic or even emotional tension. Witherspoon just looks dogged and irritated, never enlightened as Strayed became without her even realizing it until a number of years later, when she could finally set it down in book form.
The French Canadian director Jean Marc Valle strives for some emotional resonance in the relationship between Witherspoon and her dead mother, Laura Dern, who passed away from cancer at the young age of 42. But I never believed for a second that Dern and Witherspoon were even related, let alone mother and daughter. Dern does her best to be a hippie optimist right up to the end, but Witherspoon’s rage against her dying seems forced, and once again, impersonal. It’s the idea, not the reality, that Witherspoon and Valle settle for.
It’s not a good bargain. I kept waiting for WILD to come alive with the energy that gave it its title, but for all the vistas scaled in this film, it was nowhere in sight. The backstory of Strayed and her sweet, unlucky husband is given particularly short shrift in the flashbacks, and the talented Thomas Sadoski is wasted in the role. It’s hard to believe that WILD, so successful in imparting Strayed’s vivid voice on the page, could falter and stumble so badly on screen.
Maybe it would have been impossible for any director and actress that can take an interior personal reflection and make it compelling cinema. But films such as MY LEFT FOOT (1989) indicate otherwise. That was based on a memoir of personal struggle and triumph, too, but it had a director (Jim Sheridan) and a performer (Daniel Day Lewis) who made it come to magnificent fruition. Would that WILD possessed the same.