The Roads Not Taken

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For middle aged people wondering what the hell happened to the great life they were going to have, where the hell it all went wrong, The Roads Not Taken is your film, but don’t come to it expecting uplift.

Javier Bardem plays Leo, a guy living a life of extreme misery in New York. Floored by what might be a stroke, he needs help to do the most basic everyday things and gets it mostly from his devoted daughter (Elle Fanning), who matter of factly sorts out Leo when he pisses his pants at the dentist and then loses her job because caring for dad has been taking up too much of her time. Misery loves company.

Things are not going well. Leo, for his part, barely notices any of this. He’s barely in the real world and is instead living two parallel fantasy lives, imagining, we imagine, what the “roads not taken” might have yielded if he had taken them.

In one contrary imagineering to his actual grim existence he’s living out in the desert in Mexico, towards the end of a tempestuous affair with the firecracker Dolores (Salma Hayek). In another he’s a globetrotting writer whose restless spirit has brought him to a Greek island, where a beautiful young woman (Milena Tscharntke) has caught his eye, prompting the much older Leo to embark on a pursuit that looks foolish.

A relationship ending and another beginning, there’s a certain symmetry. And a lot of beauty. These parallel, other lives – they might be alternate realities, or could possibly just be the result of a fevered imagination, or Leo’s medication – have been chosen for their picturesqueness and DP Robbie Ryan (who has Slow West, American Honey and Marriage Story on his CV alongside a stack of work for Ken Loach) pulls out the stops to make everything look gorgeous. How many picture postcards and holiday snaps have there been of Greek islands sparkling in an azure sea? Or from Day of the Dead celebrations in Mexico? Both get plenty of exposure here.

Salma Hayek and Javier Bardem in a car
Meanwhile, in Mexico… 

Apart from 1992’s Orlando, Sally Potter’s films don’t usually break through into the mainstream. And yet she has a way of both getting great talent to work for her and of getting great work from the talent she gets. This is one of those films where the screenplay (also by Potter) doesn’t say it all. The actors are expected to fill in the missing gaps, and do. Laura Linney is “the woman” in the actual, miserable reality of Leo’s life, the ex wife scarred by bitterness. Hayek, so often required to be little more than a cartoon (it’s the figure), is also nuanced and complex, suggesting a woman of great passion nursing a great loss. Tscharntke, as the hot young thing Leo’s getting into a terrible state over in Greece, is in star-is-born territory. Elle Fanning, so good at playing the anxious insecure young woman, gets plenty of opportunity to do so here. And Bardem, playing essentially three different people who happen to look alike and share the same name, resists the urge to make a meal of it.

Is Leo imagining all this – those locations do seem a bit tourist-obvious – and does it matter? Are these fantasies enriching his miserable current life? How is this all going to resolve itself? Where is it all going?

Gently, ever so gently, there is movement. In the real, here-and-now world of Costco trousers and New York taxis, a chink of optimism. Which is handy because without it this film would be very hard work indeed, the gulf between Leo’s elaborate fantasies and his grim daily existence being simply too wide.

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© Steve Morrissey 2021

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