It was a dark and stormy night in post-apocalyptic Miami. The streets were wet, my best friend was drunk and I was just finishing up my job peddling people’s memories back to them when she walked in. A dame in a red dress. What a cliché. But we come back to clichés, like memories, for a reason. Writer/director Lisa Joy’s film debut, Reminiscence, isn’t just remembering the genre tropes of noir, but refitting them into a sci-fi world as confidently and imperfectly realized as the Westworld she co-created. It often gets stuck in its own loops, subjecting us to the same kind of forced and repeated trips down memory lane that alternatively seduce and damn its characters, but its self-serious update to the classic “gumshoe narrates a tale you know ends bad for the gumshoe” movie still has a few charms—in old ways and new.
A slick amalgamation of homages stuffed into rumpled linen, Reminiscence sticks its screw-up private eye Nick (Hugh Jackman)—who also runs a nostalgia business, literally allowing people to relive old memories, with his boozing war buddy Watts (Thandiwe Newton)—into a Chinatown-like series of run-arounds and red herrings. The big difference is that the femme that’ll quite obviously be fatale for him, Mae (Rebecca Ferguson), sings at a lounge on the flooded coast of nocturnal neo-Miami. If Westworld plays with Blade Runner’s replicants, Reminiscence plays with its wet and ruined noir. There’s a conspicuous lack of cigarette smoke, but its haze is replaced by the gauzy curtain of Nick’s Reminiscence machine, which projects its users’ memories in 3-D sepia. Mae needs it to find some lost keys, just the kind of innocuous request apt to send a down-on-his-luck dick gumshoeing for his life. Only, Nick isn’t an entranced cynic nor a truth-and-justice diehard. He’s an earnest romantic, through and through, which makes his labyrinthine journey into the mystery of Mae’s disappearance all the more tragic.
Joy’s script, initially more cynical than its characters, uses the plot to critique this surface-level infatuation: Does Nick really know Mae? Does knowing her past, her activities outside his immediate relationship with her, affect his affection? Male insecurity plays a major part in the film as yet another weakness lured by the temptations of perfect memories. There’s a constant tug of war between Nick seeking truth and Nick seeking comfort, which goes on so long and so explicitly that its characters (to be specific, the film’s women: Watts and Natalie Martinez’s DA) grow exasperated. It’s easy to empathize.
As pleasurable as some of the film’s elements are—Jackman and Ferguson’s romantic chemistry is tantalizing and Joy rightly stages their first sex scene as a horny frenzy—the reflexive nature of its subject matter can wear thin. An escape into familiarity for its characters, an escape into throwback conventions for us. Yet, even returning to well-worn concepts doesn’t always work as it should. Joy’s intriguing world-building clashes with noir voiceover that replaces the genre’s world-weary cleverness with world-explaining exposition. Her mystery seems hell-bent on demystifying every detail and tightening up every loose end. That could be satisfying if done with a lean elegance—especially in contrast to the designed, masochistic uncertainty of Westworld or, to a lesser extent, Inception (a film from Joy’s brother-in-law that here lends its layers of dreamy, escapist unreality)—but Reminiscence is ironically all too happy to luxuriate in flashbacks, callbacks and backtracks. The ending isn’t just thematically dissonant, but twenty minutes of obviousness and repetition.
Joy’s film has the courage of its narrative and aesthetic convictions, but not its emotions. With as little backstory as we’re given about the war the world’s recovering from or the new drugs and criminals they’ve inspired, we’re hammered with how to feel about it all. Effective ideas are undermined by the amount of time dwelled upon them—lines that might’ve been nice to recall walking out of the theater seem increasingly trite as Jackman growls them over and over again. That faithless heady dithering is almost made up for by the film’s polar opposite stance towards action. Joy evocatively stages the fights Nick stumbles into during his stint in the underworld, and gives the colorful heavies that threaten it (like a slinking Daniel Wu and a winningly sinister Cliff Curtis) plenty of room to steal scenes. Though an early gunfight is a bit of a mess, Joy fills her more down-and-dirty brawls with detail-laden shots that stick us right in the action. One sees Nick fling himself off a rooftop, bad leg and all, and we’re with him throughout the instinct, the reconsideration, the steeling and the leap of faith. Another sees a combatant slammed against a wooden privacy screen; we watch from the other side as its geometric lattice rattles with the impact.
That uneven balance between grounded physicality—the slam of a piano lid on an arm, the intensity of a game cast, or the omnipresent bodies of water—and the gimmick of memories and the philosophizing around them, destabilizes Reminiscence’s ambitions. A film about romance doomed by idolization could be easily sold by its central duo. A film about nostalgic escape play-acting an old-fashioned genre has plenty of meta potential to comment upon the entertainment industry’s IP obsession and monetization of arrested development. Reminiscence isn’t quite assured enough for either. Instead, it’s pulp that hasn’t been boiled hard enough, its ideas slowly replaced by machinery.
Director: Lisa Joy
Writers: Lisa Joy
Stars: Hugh Jackman, Rebecca Ferguson, Thandiwe Newton, Cliff Curtis, Marina de Tavira, Daniel Wu, Mojean Aria, Brett Cullen, Natalie Martinez, Angela Sarafyan, Nico Parker
Release Date: August 20, 2021
Jacob Oller is Movies Editor at Paste Magazine. You can follow him on Twitter at @jacoboller.
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