“Your glasses are always dirty,” Jane Hawking tells Stephen Hawking in a scene that’s repeated twice in The Theory of Everything. Both times I wanted to scream “YEAH, AND THEY’RE ALWAYS CROOKED TOO!”
That’s what you feel like doing when you’ve spent the last 20 minutes watching a guy walk around with conspicuously crooked glasses, even at a black-tie ball, and not a single person at his tweed-ensconced University of Mod Fashion (aka Cambridge) acknowledges either them or the fact that he has apparently deliberately combed his hair straight forward on his forehead like a three year old (and remember, this character begins the movie able-bodied). It may seem like a small thing, me nitpicking the fashion sensibilities of a famously disabled physicist, but it’s a perfect example of the kind of subtle patronizing Theory of Everything does in every scene. Like the Big Bang Theory sees an expanding universe and extrapolates it backwards to imagine a Universe that began as a single, small ball of intense energy, Theory Of Everything sees a grown-up, disabled physicist with messy hair and crooked glasses and extrapolates backwards to imagine a young, able-bodied physicist with messy hair and crooked glasses. Gosh, what imagination. I wonder if James Marsh and Anthony McCarten’s take on Abe Lincoln’s childhood would involve a 4-year-old in a top hat and stick-on beard. Four score and seven boogers ago…
Depicting Stephen Hawking as this smiling, pathologically beatific quip machine where nothing changes but the wheelchair also saves us the difficulty of imagining him as a real person, whose life has been changed by this awful affliction. Instead he’s always just an avatar for our vague ideas about his theories. That’s just Stephen being Stephen! He’s always been like that, isn’t it adorable?!
Theory of Everything isn’t so much a story as it is a series of slow claps. Stephen Hawking solves nine out of ten physics equations – slow clap in the classroom. Stephen Hawking presents his PhD thesis – slow clap in the professor’s office. Stephen Hawking writes A Brief History Of Time – slow clap in the auditorium. We get only the vaguest sense of the equations, books, and theses that made Hawking famous in the first place, and he barely has a chance to touch chalk to board before the movie begins applauding his genius. Gold star for this brave, inspiring man! That the movie seems less interested in Hawking’s ideas than in his accolades seems a bit like Freudian wish fulfillment. Oscar me, Daddy. Oscar me raw.
Take his thesis presentation. The thesis committee of be-elbow patched English gentlemen starts off telling Stephen, perched on dueling canes and smirking expectantly, that his chapter one is full of holes, chapter two is mostly unoriginal, and chapter three is pure speculation. But chapter four, this “black hole at the beginning of the universe” business? Well. Pip pip and bob’s your uncle, my good lad, because chapter four is the elephant’s earlobes! Cue smile. Cue piano. Cue slow clap. Cue triumph. Now, wouldn’t it have been kind of interesting to know what early theories didn’t work out for the now world-renown Godfather of modern astrophysics? Like Tesla’s death ray or Edison’s attempt to talk to the dead? FORGET STRUGGLE, MAN, JUST FILM HIM SMILING FROM A TRIUMPHANT LOW ANGLE! It only wants a dash of adversity to go with all the quips and smiles.
The problem with Theory of Everything is that it isn’t really about anything, other than a vague desire to be rewarded. Hawking’s stated goal is “A theory of everything, one elegant equation that explains everything in the universe,” and that’s about as specific as it ever gets about Hawking. Mostly we just see him loll his heavy head around and quip a lot. Okay, I lied, there’s also one metaphor where general relativity is peas and quantum theory is potatoes. To illustrate his theory about reversing time back to its beginning, we get Stephen and Jane clasping hands and spinning around a verdant Cambridge park while they gaze into each other’s eyes and laugh and laugh. It’s a miracle that no one drew equations on a window. There’s lots of God stuff too – Jane is religious, while Stephen describes cosmology as “a sort of religion for intelligent atheists” – but no real follow through. Between this and Interstellar (and Theory does reference Hawking’s contemporary, Kip Thorne, Interstellar‘s scientific adviser), it would’ve been cool to see two movies released back to back that actually grapple with the meaning of existence. But Theory of Everything is mostly content to treat it as a Men Are From Physics, Women Are The Bible kind of issue, har har quip quip.
The story is almost more about Jane, who fell in love with a dashing (though nerdly) college physicist given only two years to live, but who’s still alive at 72 (the question of why the movie barely acknowledges, let alone answers). What’s it like when the unexpected life event is more life? The film, supposedly based on a book written by Jane, can’t seem to decide whether to tell Jane’s story or do a Stephen biopic, and ends up caught somewhere in between.
Not that I’m not happy to gaze into Felicity Jones’s piercing blue eyes, with her supple lips and adorable chipmunk teeth. It’s almost a crutch casting an actress who’s so easy to fall in love with. And between this and playing Anton Yelchin’s love interest in Like Crazy, she apparently has a thing for pasty humpbacked dorks. Marry me? (I kid Anton because we’re old drinkin’ buddies).