Did you hear the one about the Zen master who walks up to a hot dog cart, scans the menu, and asks the vendor to "make me one with everything"?
That joke doesn't make it into Cloud Atlas, the epically long (just shy of 3 hours), epically ridiculous adaptation of David Mitchell's revered across-the-universe novel. But there are plenty of guffaws to be had from codirectors Lana and Andy Wachowski and Tom Tykwer's karmic wheel-of-life meditation on the interconnectedness of it all. Sadly (or not, depending on your mood), most of the laughs are unintentional.
Set in 1849 (the South Pacific), in 1936 (Scotland), in 1973 (San Francisco), in 2012 (London), 2144 ("Neo Seoul"), and 2321 and 2346 (in postapocalyptic Hawaii), Cloud Atlas takes its reincarnation theme literally. Many in the sprawling cast, including Tom Hanks, Halle Berry, Hugo Weaving, Jim Sturgess, Hugh Grant, and Doona Bae, play six or more characters apiece, changing wardrobes, wigs, makeup, and accents with the frequency that most of us change our socks. Only socks don't last 500 years.
Hanks, for instance, begins things in the 19th century, aboard the Prophetess, a three-masted barque, portraying a toothy scoundrel by the name of Goose. He sports a big nose and an appetite for jewels and cash. By the time we roll around to the lush jungles of 24th-century Hawaii, the actor's succession of past lives has transformed him into a peaceful goat herder who speaks in a Rasta-esque patois. Zachry is his name, and Berry, who started off as a Maori plantation worker way back when, is now Meronym, an emissary of a highly evolved club called Prescients. But not so highly evolved that she doesn't slip into the same pidgin English that Hanks is busy deploying.
"Listen close and I'll yarn you 'bout the first time we met eye da eye," he says. Yarn-bomb the guy!
People can start out evil and work their way to love, transitioning from one life to the next, forming bonds that stand the test of time. Déjà vu? Of course we feel like we've been there and done that - because we have.
Rather than unfurl this cosmicosity in straight chronological order, Tykwer (Run Lola Run, Perfume) and the Wachowskis (The Matrix) surf the space-time continuum, using words, phrases, and visual cues to facilitate their segues, revealing the cause-and-effect synchronicity at the heart of the tale.
Susan Sarandon and Ben Whishaw don't have quite as many incarnations, but they, like others in the cast, get to change gender as well as race in their respective roles. Jim Broadbent, looking like Haddock from The Adventures of Tintin, captains the Prophetess and its crew, and then appears as an over-the-hill Scottish composer, a bumbling British book publisher, and one of Berry's fellow transcendental know-it-alls, another Prescient.
Visually, Cloud Atlas conjures up worlds historic and fantastic, dazzling and cheesy. In Neo Seoul, where Bae works as a kind of cocktail-waitress geisha (on a saintly path), the production design crosses Blade Runner with Star Trek and Busby Berkeley chorus girl musicals. Between-the-wars Scotland looks Masterpiece Theaterly, and the Aloha State landscapes of the dystopian yet-to-be have a certain Avatar-ish hue.
Cloud Atlas is pop spiritualism, comic-book grandiosity, Zen for dummies. I can't say I didn't enjoy it on some level, but it's not the level of universal wisdom the Wachowskis and Tykwer would have us be on.