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‘Wild’: Nothing to get wild about

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‘REVIEW WRITTEN BY NATHAN LERNER/For 21st Century Media

If you’re already overwhelmed with a sense of self-loathing and despair, what is the antidote?

We meet 26-year old Cheryl Strayed (Reese Witherspoon) at her nadir in 1995. Her beloved mother, Bobbi (Laura Dern), had died prematurely several years before. It plunged Strayed into a downward spiral of self-destructive behavior.

Though married, Strayed interrupts her waitressing gig by intermittently heading to an alleyway behind the diner. There, she has sex with random customers.  Strayed couples her wanton promiscuity with drug abuse. We witness Strayed shooting heroin with one of her hook-ups. Eventually, she demands a divorce from her husband. The film fails to convincingly account for how the death of Strayed’s mother triggers such a full-blown melt-down, rather than a more measured grief response.

Impulsively, Strayed decides to hike a thousand-mile stretch of the Pacific Crest Trail as a solitary outing. Strayed is undaunted by the salient fact that she had absolutely no experience as a hiker. The film effectively emphasizes how vulnerable a woman is to male predations, particularly when she is miles from civilization. Shouldn’t Strayed, who was hardly a naive ingénue, have anticipated such perils?  Wouldn’t it have made more sense for Strayed to have made the journey with a companion?

In an early scene, we see Strayed struggling to hoist her overbloated backpack. As we subsequently discover, it’s full of all sorts of extraneous gear. A bicycle pump — is that what she really needs?

Strayed is wearing a pair of hiking boots that are much too small for her feet. Above a steep mountainside cliff, she sits down to take a break from the ardors of her trek. She peels off her boots to reveal that her toenails have turned black. Could it get worse? Strayed drops one of her boots and it goes tumbling down the mountainside. In exasperation, she chucks the other boot after it. Strayed is hardly off to an auspicious start.

The film’s picaresque narrative is structured as an episodic litany of adventures. These are interrupted by flashback scenes. Many of these depict Strayed’s relationship with her mother. She had fled an abusive alcoholic husband, then raised the protagonist and her brother. Both Witherspoon and Dern deliver credible performances. However, since Dern is only nine years older than Witherspoon, the casting is somewhat problematic.

This image released by Fox Searchlight Pictures shows Reese Witherspoon in a scene from the film, "Wild." Witherspoon was nominated for a Golden Globe for best actress in a drama for her role in the film on Thursday, Dec. 11, 2014. The 72nd annual Golden Globe awards will air on NBC on Sunday, Jan. 11. (AP Photo/Fox Searchlight Pictures, Anne Marie Fox)

This image released by Fox Searchlight Pictures shows Reese Witherspoon in a scene from the film, “Wild.” Witherspoon was nominated for a Golden Globe for best actress in a drama for her role in the film on Thursday, Dec. 11, 2014. The 72nd annual Golden Globe awards will air on NBC on Sunday, Jan. 11. (AP Photo/Fox Searchlight Pictures, Anne Marie Fox)

Early in her career, Witherspoon’s portrayal of an ambitious high school student in “Election” elicited critical accolades. Her subsequent portrayal of June Carter Cash in “Walk the Line” garnered critical accolades as well as an Academy Award, a Golden Globe, a BAFTA, and a Screen Actor’s Guild Award.

More recently, Witherspoon has been reduced to playing the female member of a love triangle in a trio of schlock comedies. Earlier this year, Witherspoon top-lined “The Good Lie.” The film was so execrable that its national theatrical release was aborted.

Eager to find a vehicle that could resurrect her floundering career, Witherspoon purchased the rights to adapt Strayed’s source novel, “Wild: From Lost to Found on the Pacific Crest Trail.” In her role as co-producer, she lined up screenwriter, Nick Hornby, and director, Jean-Marc Vallée. Each is Oscar nominated, Hornby for “An Education” and Vallée for “Dallas Buyers Club.”

Although Witherspoon jettisons make-up, one never quite forgets that she is a Hollywood star, not some dissolute lost soul. Moreover, I was never convinced that her character was experiencing some sort of spiritual transformation. Nevertheless, Witherspoon has been widely touted as a surefire Oscar nominee for her performance in this film.

“Wild” can’t escape comparison to another film, released earlier this year, which had a strikingly similar storyline. “Tracks” was based on the best-selling 1980 memoir of the same name by Robyn Davidson (played by Mia Wasikowska). The film adaptation depicted her 1,700 mile, nine-month trek from Alice Springs in central Australia westward to reach the Indian Ocean. She was accompanied by her faithful dog and a quartet of camels. Both films involved plucky female protagonists, who embark on treks, for which they are ill-prepared. Each of the lead characters is encumbered with a prickly personality and engaged in dysfunctional relationships with her male peers. Both films benefit enormously from the gorgeous outdoor scenery.

Some will inevitably extol “Wild” as a film, which celebrates a spiritual epiphany and resultant female empowerment. However, admiration for the film ignores a salient fact. “Wild” venerates a foolhardy woman, who jettisoned her original, risk-laden behaviors only to undertake a gratuitously dangerous solo adventure.

** R (for sexual content, nudity, drug use, and language) 115 minutes

Film critic Nathan Lerner sees more than 200 feature films a year. He welcomes feedback at lernerprose@gmail.com.

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