“Cloud Atlas” is a fitfully entertaining mess of a movie that one can watch with both open-mouthed amazement and occasional amusement. Lana and Andy Wachowski and Tom Tykwer both burst upon the international film scene with lively, splashy entertainments (“Bound” and the first “Matrix” movie for the Wachowskis, “Run Lola Run” for Tykwer), then quickly seemed to get bogged down in ever-more-lugubrious films and outright misfires (the follow-up “Matrix” films, “V for Vendetta,” “Speed Racer” for the Wachowskis, “The Princess and the Warrior,” “Heaven,” “Perfume: The Story of a Murderer,” for Tykwer).
Their first combined effort, “Cloud Atlas,” adapts David Mitchell’s multi-story, multi-style novel, into its own even more complexly woven narrative, whose dozen main actors re-appear as different characters in successive time frames, suggesting soul evolution and karmic retribution. Acting styles vary wildly, with Tom Hanks often over-the-top and eye-popping, Halle Berry low-key and clueless, Jim Broadbent, well, broad, but game, Hugh Grant relishing his strange getups and characters, only one of which featured his boyish charm, and Ben Whishaw believably and consistently sincere.
Prosthetics and makeup people worked overtime, with considerable emphasis on teeth. Oddly, since Lana Wachowski, after gender re-assignment, is considerably more attractive as a woman than she was as a man, none of the drag characters (notably Hugo Weaving as a Nurse Ratched type) are at all fetching. As “Variety” would have it, all tech credits are pro, with impressive set design and costumes, sweeping camera work, much CGI (a lot of it believable), and a relentless score (some of it meant to be the “Cloud Atlas” Sextet, composed by Whishaw in Thirties England and rediscovered by Halle Berry in the Seventies).
The Wachowskis shot three of the six main storylines (two set in the future, and a nineteenth-century sea story), and Tykwer the other three: England in the thirties, San Francisco in the seventies, modern-day England. The stories are intercut so quickly (unlike the inverted structure of the novel, in which the six narratives are each given a chapter, and then completed with another chapter each, in inverted order) that you never have a moment to become either engrossed or bored, though you often giggle in disbelief. Often the restless nature of the storytelling feels like a shell game, or one of misdirection, as with magic tricks or con games.
The initial frisson at seeing a familiar face in new guise (Susan Sarandon covered in Maori tattoos, Tom Hanks with shaved head, goatee, broken nose, and diamond stud earring) gives way eventually to fatigue and weariness: two hours and 43 minutes feels exactly like two hours and 43 minutes, and you wait for each tale to be tied up, triumphantly, moralistically, and simplistically, with chocolate-box ribbons. Audiences should be sure to stay for at least the first part of the credits, when the actors are revealed, in cameo portraits, as each of the characters they’ve played, and at least a few should come as surprises.