If you’re lucky and your memory serves you well, the lovely Rodgers and Hart standard “Where or When,” sung by Rebecca Ferguson’s mysterious chanteuse Mae in Reminiscence, will take you back to Ellen Burstyn at the piano in Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore, feeling her way through the song as she looks to her past to reshape her uncertain future. You should pray that exquisite distraction lingers, transporting you to a movie with a compelling plot, three-dimensional characters and emotional stakes that pull you in. Or you could stick with the stultifying bore of writer-director Lisa Joy’s first feature, a convoluted sci-fi noir mind-fuck from the Christopher Nolan school.
Joy happens to be Nolan’s sister-in-law, which might explain a lot, although she does have her own credentials as a successful television writer — on Pushing Daisies, Burn Notice and, most notably, Westworld, which she co-created with her husband, Jonathan Nolan. All that would suggest more persuasive storytelling skills than this lethargic trudge through the murky waters of memory, which is drowning in ponderous platitudes and enigmatic non-sequiturs masquerading as dialogue. Its star cast notwithstanding, there’s good reason Warners is dumping the movie in the dog days of summer with minimal fanfare.
Hugh Jackman plays Nick Bannister, a private investigator who reconnects clients with lost memories through an immersion tank hooked up to computer gadgetry that produces hologram-like visual recordings. These are then archived in Nick’s vault on glass discs, because he’s an analog kind of guy.
“Time is no longer a one-way stream,” says Nick in a gurgle of voiceover that threatens never to end. “Memory is the boat that sails against its current. And I’m the oarsman.” There’s reams of this prosaic stuff: “The past is just a series of moments, each one perfect, complete, a bead on the necklace of time.” “Nothing is more addictive than the past.” “Memories are like perfume, better in small doses.” Narration is also better in small doses, but Joy is so intoxicated by it that she repeats the entire opening spiel in the concluding stretch.
Since business is slow, Nick also takes sideline employment extracting memory depositions for the office of the Miami DA (Natalie Martinez). But not just any old Miami. This one is in — you guessed it! — a Dystopian Future, in which rage against the wealthy ruling class is a bubbling cauldron. The border wars have given way to civil conflict as the waters have risen, with the barons claiming all the dry land and pushing the poor and disenfranchised further and further out onto the submerged coastline.
The most powerful of them is Walter Sylvan (Brett Cullen), a Trumpy slumlord with his fingers in all kinds of chicanery and corruption. He has a wife, Tamara (Marina de Tavira), with a foreign accent and a shaky hold on reality, plus a sniveling scion, Sebastian (Mojean Aria), who learned from Dad not to do his own dirty work. The depiction of this decadent dynasty has all the subtlety of an anal probe. Naturally there’s a melancholy mistress on the side, Elsa (Angela Sarafyan), and a young illegitimate son who becomes an inconvenient blight on Walter’s public profile.
Nick’s sole employee in his memory biz is Watts (Thandiwe Newton), a loyal ex-comrade from their days of drafted military service who has her own sorrows. She’s the most intriguing character in the movie, but, unfortunately, disappears for a hefty chunk of it. Though not before demonstrating her kick-ass sharpshooter and fight skills, stepping in to save Nick as he’s about to be drowned in a tank full of eels in a New Orleans bar by the henchmen of drug kingpin Saint Joe (Daniel Wu), the area’s chief supplier of a highly addictive opiate called baca. During the shootout, a stray bullet hits the jukebox, and, faster than you can say, “Chew baca,” “Tainted Love” comes on.
That’s because despite all the plot contortions to uncover the nefarious business of Walter Sylvan — much of it carried out by crooked cop Cyrus Boothe (Cliff Curtis), who’s also in Saint Joe’s pocket — Joy aims to beguile us with romance. The myth of Orpheus and Eurydice is cited more than once as jaded Nick finds himself hypnotized by Mae, a femme fatale who takes a dip in his memory tank ostensibly to recover a lost set of keys.
Mae disappears soon after, but she’s not forgotten. As Nick has already noted, “Memories have a voracious appetite; if you’re not careful they’ll consume you.” Which is what happens when the woman who planted herself in his subconscious with a song from his childhood turns up in someone else’s visualized deposition, hooked on baca.
While Mae clearly spells trouble, Nick is unable to resist following her trail, ignoring the concerned warnings of Watts. As an ugly conspiracy comes to light involving Sylvan, Boothe and Mae, Nick begins to understand that he’s fallen in love and been duped at the same time. Or is the truth behind the shady dame even more tangled than he could have imagined?
Duh, of course it is! In a movie this overloaded with plot, the revelations are like a leaky faucet, just like that purple voiceover. In fact, there’s so much going on, much of it behind the literal curtain of memory, that Joy leaves little room for the characters to establish themselves in the here and now. That applies especially to Mae, who remains a distant cipher even after all the laborious explanation of her elaborate game. Nor does that help the heat-free chemistry between Ferguson and Jackman, who appeared together previously in The Greatest Showman.
Outside of his glowering Wolverine, given such haunting life, especially in Logan, Jackman tends to register most effectively when there’s a strain of mischievous humor in his roles, most recently in Bad Education. His Nick Bannister is a dour presence, far less interesting when he’s rewriting the tragic ending of a Greek myth while swooning over Mae than when he’s swapping banter with Watts.
The most affecting scene actually springs not from the soggy central love story but from Nick and Watts’ reconciliation as he places his future in her hands. Newton (who worked with Joy on Westworld) seems underused in what’s basically a sidekick role, but she deftly sketches in a history that makes you want to know more about the character.
There’s more deadening talk than action, the latter confined largely to Watts’ rescue of Nick from his brush with Saint Joe, and to Nick and Boothe in an extended fight/chase over rooftops that ends with the visual flourish of a grand piano sinking into the watery depths. But the violence has little impact because the story never acquires enough lucidity to pack much urgency.
Reminiscence has a sleek, moody look and a big brooding score by frequent Westworld composer Ramin Djawadi to propel the story in the absence of plot momentum. But as a bead on the necklace of time, it’s shoddy costume jewelry.