The Lost City

2022 | PG-13 | starring Sandra Bullock, Channing Tatum, Daniel Radcliff, Da’Vine Joy Randolph, Brad Pitt, Patti Harrison, Oscar Nunez | directed by Aaron Nee and Adam Nee | 1 hr 52 mins |

The Lost City is such a flavorless, generic, uninspired and inoffensive movie that wondering how it made the journey from page to screen is more entertaining than the action itself. It has just enough germs of ideas to speculate on what this movie may have been before any combination of studio mandates and incompetence beat the life out of it. There is simply no way the final product was supposed to look like this. And speculate, we will do!

Loretta Sage (Sandra Bullock) is a widowed romance novelist who dragged herself to the end of her latest book and is now begrudgingly going on a book tour with her publicist (Da’Vine Joy Randolph, Only Murders in the Building), her social media creator (Patti Harrison, please drop this and see Together Together) and – for some reason – the book cover model for her dashing romantic lead (named Dash), Alan (Channing Tatum). At a tour stop, she is promptly kidnapped by Abigail Fairfax (Daniel Radcliff), a media mogul millionaire concerned with gathering antiquities, who needs Loretta to use her novel research skills to translate ancient texts for him with the goal of finding an ancient treasure on an island before a volcano erupts and destroys it.

To silly to take seriously and too serious to be taken as camp, whatever The Lost City is trying to be it falls between ever genre gap: inside the unborn nucleus of this movie is a cheesy 90’s-style PG-13 rom-com adventure waiting to burst out – though the final product lacks romance or comedy or adventure.  It’s a simple idea where every detail that is plugged in to flesh out the characters and their motives tugs the movie in the opposite direction of where this genre picture would naturally drift. Peeling all of this back, The Lost City at it’s core should have been a high-concept premise: romance novelist finds herself in romance novel for real, where she uses her knowledge of the tropes of the genre to get herself out of real world adventure. Easy. It’s Three Amigos and Tropic Thunder. It’s the mystery author who thinks he witnesses a murder and tries to solve the case. She’s jaded about love because of bad luck in that department and the adventure renews her spirit, both as a romantic and as an author. The first scene of this movie teases that clever meta-premise, finding Loretta writing herself into the adventure with Dash, then questioning the plot holes that popped up around her and deleting characters into thin air. This could have been a movie about a romance novelist that explored the creative process in that way. Drafting, redrafting, going down a path and having to untie knots you accidently wrote in. Imagine it.

One of the first details that cuts through what should be a breezy, fun movie is why Loretta is so disengaged with her work – because she’s a window grieving her dead husband. Not an opportunity that puts her open to new romance. It’s also an odd choice for Fairfax to kidnap Loretta instead of talking to her and just asking if she’d like to go on a journey of discovery that she probably would willingly go on anyway (given that she wrote several books on ancient civilizations and he doesn’t know that she’s depressed). In a more fun movie, there would be some mistaken identity scenario where Loretta using the limited knowledge she learned in book research made Fairfax think she was an expert on the subject and offers her the role, forcing her to fake it and getting in over her head. In a more fun movie she would willingly go on the adventure instead of rejecting every opportunity to be an active agent in the story.

Then we have Channing Tatum’s Alan, who inexplicably loves Loretta and chases into the jungle after her. To get her back he hires mercenary Jack Trainer (Brad Pitt in an extended cameo), so that the muscle-bound action hero Tatum naturally looks like can kind of, sort of, if you squint, seem like a doofus by comparison. The movie tells us Alan is a doofus because he wears an airplane neck pillow off the plane. Obviously, Tatum is wildly miscast here, both in his appearance not fitting the role and that we know he can be funnier than this.  Actually everyone is miscast here – except for Sandra Bullock because she’s Sandra Bullock and can make about anything work within a 1 foot radius of her.

The Lost City refuses to commit to anything. It would rather stand outside of itself and be snarky than have a genuine moment. Fairfax is a terrible villain and Radcliff plays him as the same inept nerd he played in Now You See Me 2. He’s the same sniveling, self-aware, non-threating rich villain you see in all movies now. Alan and Loretta slowly fall for each other, seemingly just because characters in these movies are supposed to. Like every other retro movie now, Lost City is in a tug of war with itself and it’s own corporate feminism, trying to work out visibly on-screen how to depict both a strong female character that doesn’t need a man and a female romance novel fantasy of a long-haired Fabio-type who swings in and saves her. A manly hero who whisks her to safety but also doesn’t mansplain to her – or does but acknowledges the mansplaining. You’ll be shocked to learn the movie splits the difference, neither coming down as a critic of romance novel traditions nor a celebration of them.

The Lost City is a waste of everyone’s time and it’s considerable talent. Maybe that’s why any discussion of romance novels, or how to write them, was pushed out of this movie. They seem quaint, almost archaic now, only rising to pop culture awareness when they hit a new taboo like vampires or bondage. In a world where the foundational building blocks of the internet that runs it are paved with incest porn, a studio feared nobody would understand a movie about romance novels. That strikes me as exactly a reason that movie should have been made.

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