Julie Taymor knows how to cause a ruckus.
She’s been celebrated on Broadway for her staging of “The Lion King” and pilloried for her extravagances as the original director of “Spider-Man: Turn off the Dark.”
Why doesn’t her movie work have the same pizzazz?
Unlike a lot of legendary theater-turned-movie directors (Orson Welles and Bob Fosse, to name two of the best), Taymor has never seemed quite at home on the big screen. Paradoxically, her shows seem more cinematic than her cinema. (Her dismissal from “Spider-Man” continues to be a subject of litigation).
This may be because her imagination is essentially keyed to the proscenium arch. She regards theater as a species of magic show. (She once wrote, in connection with “The Lion King,” that “Magic can be generated by blatantly showing how theater is created rather than hiding it.”)
As any magician will tell you, illusions are better sustained on a live stage than before a camera, where the cinematic process is itself a form of trickery and undercuts the mystery. Taymor reaches for striking visual tableaux that on stage are impressive and on film seem fraudulent.
Her most recent film, “The Tempest” (2010) was arguably her weakest, despite the fact that she had staged Shakespeare’s drama back in 1986. Compared with Derek Jarman’s 1979 movie adaptation, which concluded with a jazz rendition of “Stormy Weather,” Taymor’s version is adventurous in all the wrong ways, starting with her gender-bending decision to cast Helen Mirren as “Prospera.”
Mirren seems befuddled -- shipwrecked -- by the conceit. There’s little force in her tour de force. The enchanted island where she reigns is all too obviously a series of travelogue-ish Hawaii locations. Ariel zooms through the sky in a blur of cheesy afterimages.
Taymor’s earlier Shakespeare movie adaptation, “Titus” (1999), was stronger. In her feature-film debut, Taymor brought to the screen some of the elemental force that characterizes her best stage work (including a cult-status staging of “Titus Andronicus” in 1994 at New York’s Theater For a New Audience).
The film is mostly set amid Roman ruins but it has motorbikes, tractors and tanks and a distinctly nouveau disposition. Anthony Hopkins’s infernal general Titus is a kind of punk king, and his prisoner, Jessica Lange’s Tamora, is the golden-armored queen of the goths.
As a director of stage and screen, Taymor is even more into time-bending than gender-bending, and “Titus,” although it’s more like a collection of tableaux vivants than a movie, at least bends intriguingly.
You can’t say as much for “Frida” (2002), which could have used a dose of daring. This was the project that Salma Hayek, who plays Mexican artist Frida Kahlo, fought seven years to finance, and yet it doesn’t come across as a movie that anybody just had to make. By Taymor standards, it’s a fairly straightforward biopic.
Hayek gamely tries to make the most of her unibrow. The bohemian chic, including a tango scene between Frida and Ashley Judd’s Tina Modotti that recalls Bernardo Bertolucci’s “The Conformist,” seems second-hand. The film only comes alive when Taymor recreates some of Kahlo’s paintings -- in other words, when it most resembles Taymor’s conceptual brand of stage work.
“Across the Universe” (2007), Taymor’s ode to Beatles music, is too shaggy and wide-eyed to dislike, but it exposes one of Taymor’s greatest failings: Her lack of narrative sense. (She co-wrote the story). It’s about Jude (Jim Sturgess), a Liverpool dockworker who visits America and falls for the upper-crust Lucy (Evan Rachel Wood).
“Universe” features 33 Beatles’ songs. Taymor piles on the masks and the puppets. She stages “Strawberry Fields Forever” with strawberries bombing Southeast Asia and has Bono appear as the acid guru Dr. Robert singing “I Am the Walrus.”
It’s a bliss-out without much bliss. For all her gifts, much the same could be said of Taymor’s movie career to date.
(Peter Rainer is a critic for Muse, the arts and leisure section of Bloomberg News. Any opinions expressed are his own).