Less an abundance of flaws than an absence of anything that works especially well.
Wonderstruck is not a “bad” film. The people involved, from director Todd Haynes to cinematographer Edward Lachman to a cast that includes veterans Julianne Moore and Michelle Williams (for the whole five minutes or so that she’s in it) and a trio of youngsters—Ben (Oakes Fegley) and Jamie (Jaden Michael) in the 1970’s and Rose (Millicent Simmonds) in the 1920’s—are all clearly skilled at what they do. And yet, the film still just does not work. Watching it is like opening a pastry box from a really good bakery only to find it empty inside. Wonderstruck fails to inspire wonder or any emotions at all. Bad movies, like literal train wrecks, are quite often capable of holding our attention even if it’s for all the wrong reasons. But there is no train wreck here; everything is okay, just okay—so totally normal that it’s not okay at all and is instead horrendously boring.
There are many battles to choose from with this film. The pacing is often incredibly slow, especially for what is ultimately a children’s movie. You would think that the parallel narrative structure – Ben runs away from a Minnesota hospital in 1977 after losing both his hearing and his mother and goes searching in New York City for his father while Rose runs away from home to the Big Apple to meet her idol, actress Lillian Mayhew, in 1927, – would leave the film with an excess of plot. That’s not the case though as instead too much of the plots feel redundant in their similarities often giving way to overly long montages cross-cutting between the two. One example sees both children exploring the Museum of Natural History and offering up their similar reactions to the same features. On the rare occasion it adds some insight to the characters, but for the most part, it just adds to the running time. (Really? Meteorites are cool regardless of when you’re a kid? You don’t say?)
The rationale behind the film’s visual style choices—1927 is black & white while 1977 is at times warmly tinted, like some sections of the movie are being shown on a computer with f.lux left on—is pretty self-explanatory. And of course, aurally, there’s the added connection between the silence (that is, lack of diegetic dialogue) of the ’20s sections and Rose’s deafness. Still, it’s more of an “I see what you’re going for” deal as opposed to a “you 100% got there.” On some level, I can even understand why this is the case. If the film committed to the aesthetic of ’20s cinema—for example, the exaggerated makeup and acting—it would make the contrast with inter-cut ’70s sequences distracting and unpleasantly strong, and the whole inter-cutting thing is kind of the point of the narrative, the thing that tries to keep it from being lesser Hugo. So it’s a catch-22.
Brian Selznick‘s script is an adaption of his novel, his first such endeavor, but there’s something off about it raising the possibility that maybe he’s not the best at adapting his work for the screen. Wonderstruck is Selznick’s first screenwriting credit, and even if it wasn’t, authors adapting their work to films is a turbulent designation with plenty of highs and lows. There were certain sequences, particularly near the end of the film, where I couldn’t figure out why the narrative was handling things a particular way until I imagined it as if it were written in a book at which point it made sense. It still doesn’t work particularly well cinematically, but I can understand why it is the way it is.
And once you finally do make it through to the end, the film’s “Ah-ha!” moment is much more accurately an “uh-huh” moment. Wonderstruck clearly aims for a “big reveal” moment, but it draws back the curtain to reveal a plot the narrative equivalent of Swiss cheese. I cannot even describe to you the note on which the film ends, because what at first seems somber-ish (I guess?) is followed by an upbeat ’70s hit played blasting over the end credits, followed by a mawkish children’s choir rendition of “Space Oddity,” leading me to conclude that somber wasn’t the intended closing note. Unless that is, the film is aiming for emotional whiplash.
Unfortunately, the most intriguing thing about Wonderstruck is how so many seemingly guaranteed elements could come together as a whole that for some reason still doesn’t function quite right.