movie reviews

‘The Lost City’ review: A middling meta romance

Ryan Oquiza

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‘The Lost City’ review: A middling meta romance

Screenshot from trailer

Sandra Bullock and Channing Tatum get blindsided by a wonky and aimless script better suited for the balls-to-the-wall performances of its side characters

This is a spoiler-free review.

Romantic schlock, no matter how cliched or trope-infested, is delightful.

No other genre has the capacity to elicit swooning and feminine escapism quite like it. The masculine man arrives to save the damsel in distress, bandits endlessly chase our heroes, and constant back and forths between will-they and won’t-they scenarios are to be expected. It’s unapologetically trite, and it just so happens to be both steamy and entertaining. 

This is why inserting Sandra Bullock and Channing Tatum into The Lost City, a semi-romantic comedy/adventure, feels like it should be a home run. One is returning to her comedic chops, while the other is given a role meant to match his soft, mannish charm. Instead, the film is ashamed of its romantic sentimentality and, sometimes, even its own script. Actors feel like they’re dilly-dallying on their lines for the sake of naturalism while someone in their earpiece is desperately dissuading them from veering off-topic — to no avail.

The film begins with sexually charged prose and sprinkles of meta-commentary. Loretta Sage (played by Sandra Bullock) is a romance-adventure novel writer who hates writing romance-adventure novels. She bemoans having to work with Alan Caprison (played by Channing Tatum), the doddering cover model who puts into flesh the imaginations of readers by posing as Dash McMahon, the hero of her book The Lost City of D. Loretta has expertise in Spanish history and anthropology, passions which she shared with her late husband (a detail barely even scratched) that she now includes in her books. 

Her latest book tour organized by her publicist Beth (played by the talented Da’Vine Joy Randolph), is disrupted when Loretta is kidnapped by an evil British billionaire, Abigail Fairfax (played by a hyperbolic Daniel Radcliffe). This prompts Alan, who has taken a liking to Loretta, to channel his inner Dash and hatch a rescue plan accompanied by his trainer, Jack Trainer (played suavely by Brad Pitt). What ensues is a smorgasbord of chaos and hilarity spearheaded by a colorful cast of side characters that instantly deflates whenever we cut back to Bullock and Tatum.

Sandra Bullock, best known for her rom-com turn in The Proposal, her iconic fish-out-of-water pageant antics in Miss Congeniality, and the fearlessly spirited Annie Porter in Speed, plays an amalgamation of the above roles to mixed results. Everything about her character is a walking contradiction, not in an elevated sense, but a trifling one. She’s a self-professed sapiosexual who writes sexually charged material that, in her eyes, lacks the substance worthy of her standards. She loathes the fact that her readers are impervious to her book’s deeper anthropological meaning because they prefer ogling at the smutty details. This doesn’t make her relatable; it does the opposite. I’d rather relate with the horny fanatics than the out-of-touch stuck-up.

Ironically, the best part of the movie was the masculine man doing masculine things, the antithesis of what its meta-narrative wants to accomplish. Brad Pitt is plucked straight from Once Upon a Time in Hollywood and gives a preview of his action prowess for the upcoming Bullet Train (which also stars Sandra Bullock, hopefully in a better-written role). His short sequence of testosterone-fueled extravagance is snappy and jolting. It was so good that once it ended, I heard an audible groan in my theater. I would imagine that person probably felt, “God, we have to make do with Channing Tatum now?” 

It’s unfortunate since this role perfectly suits Tatum’s strengths as an actor. He showed his comical touch in the 21 Jump Street series, proved his sexualized candor in Magic Mike, and “tried” to excel as a leading man in Jupiter Ascending and White House Down. Now, he’s tasked to play a musclehead who wants to impress the intellectual. His arc is to make Bullock’s character realize that she shouldn’t judge a book by its cover, referring to the inner depth that exists beyond his abs. But, while he may have persuaded her, I was not convinced. Tatum’s improv is meandering and shallow, leaving his physicality to do double-time just to save his performance. His humor works when he can be his jockish self (like in the Jump Street series) and when you can track the natural progression of his transformation. Here, directors Aaron Nee and Adam Nee fail to consider the immense vulnerability he can bring to the table and opt for futile jokes that barely advance his story further.

At least Daniel Radcliffe seemed to be enjoying his villainous role. You can feel the behind-the-scenes snickering that probably occurred after each crude and over-the-top line he delivers. He’s in a completely different film, which is actually a good thing since scenes with him are never dull. Da’Vine Joy Randolph gets an unexpected amount of emotionality as a mere publicist, but her characterization remains vague, just another book meant not to be judged by its cover. Her pathos is enhanced by the actress herself rather than the actual writing, which is a shame since she had the potential to do more.

As for the adventure part of the film, it was more of an afterthought. Beguiling mysteries are easily solved, and puzzles are conveniently disposed of. When the shining beacon of hope that will save Sandra Bullock is a “Find My Smartphone” app, it’s hard not to tune out the stakes of this haphazard treasure hunt. In spite of the final twist, the story’s meaning is not supported by it. Of course, love is the answer, and it’s written all over the wall with vivid and attention-grabbing paint, as garish as the purple glittered onesie Bollock wears throughout the film. 

The Lost City is frustrating because if you were going to go for romantic schlock, then go for romantic schlock! There’s no need to bash it or wince at the thought of cheesy and immature platitudes. Not everything has to be meta nowadays; sometimes, we still need those lowbrow adventures that are shameless in their conventionality. I would’ve much rather enjoyed reading Loretta’s titillating romance novel over this any day. –

The Lost City will open in Philippine cinemas on Wednesday, April 20.

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Ryan Oquiza

Ryan Oquiza is a film critic for Rappler and has contributed articles to CNN Philippines Life, Washington City Paper, and PhilSTAR Life.