"You like my shoes?"
There are two ways to make a film based on a true story. The first is to blur the facts into a fictional narrative that ends up serving the truth by making it more dramatic. The second is to do a straightforward recreation of the facts in an attempt to shuck dramatic convention in favor of verisimilitude. The first way is almost always the most successful, and nearly every great film based on a true story has hewn to this formula. It is with a heavy heart that I must tell you that Wild is an overly earnest attempt to be that second kind of film, but features so many absurdly fantastical sequences and characters that speak mostly in platitudes, that any desire to be truthful is rendered patently nonsensical.
Based on the true story of pretty blonde girl Cheryl Strayed (Reese Witherspoon) and her attempt to find herself by hiking the 1,100 mile Pacific Crest Trail, Wild is Oprah's book club pablum meant to sate the appetites of similarly pretty American women who have eaten, prayed, loved, and had their fill of chicken soup for the soul. As someone who has an enormous amount of respect for women, and is doing his best to raise two of them into fine, outstanding young members of society, I have to wonder why women continue to line up to be pandered to at the bookstore and the box office. Not only does Wild promote bad decision making, it downright romanticizes it.
Now look, I'm not trying to say that there's not value in the message of Wild, but it's a film tailor made for people who prefer to let others make mistakes and then attempt to live better lives by osmosis. It's the kind of sickening tripe that was so prominent in the "Stop the Insanity" mid-90s in which it is set, and is the perfect story to read on your Kindle Fire XD while you sit by your electric fireplace and sip a pumpkin spice latte. It's the most bullshit kind of feminism that exists in the world, as it gently massages the shoulders of women everywhere who've made countless mistakes in their lives only to realize that those mistakes make you who you are.
Cheryl Strayed has a tale to tell that's perfect for a twelve-step testimony, which is about as deep as this film gets. It's then gussied up in the makeup-free glamour of Hollywood, where poverty looks like it just stumbled away from the craft service table toward a director who can shake a camera in front of its face to convey how gritty it looks. The film doesn't have an ounce of truth in it, and dishes out Robert Fulghum-esque life lessons like it's reinventing the wheel. It's a cheat to dish out wisdom that sounds like it came from a pamphlet as if you're reciting Shakespeare.
Director Jean-Marc Vallée emptied out his bag of tricks with last year's Dallas Buyers Club, but there he at least had two knockout lead performers who were able to elevate the marginal material with which they were working. Here he shows his limitations by making a nearly identical film in virtually every regard. The film's structure is a nightmarish labyrinth of memories that arise at a moment's notice, flashbacks, and sometimes even flashbacks within flashbacks. Cheryl's memories are often triggered by music, and while the soundtrack is aces, featuring everything from Portishead to Simon & Garfunkel—clearly the influence of screenwriter and musicophile Nick Hornby—it's a trick that overstays its welcome almost instantaneously.
The film's other achilles heel is a trend that began with 2006's The Queen, which is the human/wild animal staredown. This moment is supposed to convey a profound sense of character by recognizing and empathizing with that which can't be tamed, but it's so overplayed at this point in time as to be laughable. Cheryl Strayed is a regular Doctor Doolittle, conversing with horses, foxes, crickets, and even an alpaca—or a llama, I'm not entirely sure. If only a great wizard could show up in Hollywood and send this trope back to the fiery chasm from whence it came.
This brings us, inevitably, to Reese Witherspoon. Ms. Witherspoon seems like a nice enough person, but her limitations are nearly as great as the wide variety of roles she continues to play. She never fully divorces herself from any of her characters, which is the ultimate movie star trait, but it's also terribly distracting. The one time she ever really and truly pushed herself away from her instincts was in Election, and she is sublimely good in that film. She's now a movie star, however, and that means that she doesn't have to really try anymore, her talents will shine through no matter what. Unfortunately, this makes it impossible to believe her in any role, let alone one in which she's showing the audience how much work she's doing rather than just actually doing it. Thank goodness none of us had to suffer the indignities of seeing her play Amazing Amy in Gone Girl, it might have derailed that entire film.
As Wild moves from one "learning experience" to the next, Cheryl encounters all manner of people from scary, rapey hillbillies, to a bunch of damn, dirty hippies comforting one another in the wake of Jerry Garcia's death. It feels simultaneously honest and fake as the digital film it was shot on, as this film foolishly attempts to be both types of true story films I mentioned earlier. I think the "hiking to find yourself" film is as played out as just about every other ridiculously ham handed cliché this film revels in. Audiences deserve better than this, and until they come to that realization on their own, we're going to continue to suffer through these awful films that think they have something new to offer to the discussion. To paraphrase several quotes at once, if an actor shits in the woods, will anyone be left who wants to watch?
GO Rating: 0.5/5
[Photos via Rotten Tomatoes]