In Adam and Aaron Nee’s “The Lost City,” a wild, careening screwball comedy set in the jungle, the stars are on full display — and they need to be. See, the directing duo are following a similar roadmap used by “Romancing the Stone,” the Indiana Jones franchise, and Tomb Raider: colossal big-budget adventures dependent upon the stars who lead them as much as the exotic locations they call home. Here, a quartet of marquee names carry a knowingly pastiche romp whose lightweight charm somehow impedes its path to rom-com success.
You can’t totally blame the Nees for leaning heavily on their ensemble. In a slapdash comedy filled with big punchlines — and even bigger explosions — they’ve assembled a couple of the best comedic personalities available in Sandra Bullock and Channing Tatum. The pair portray noted romance novelist Loretta Sage and her steamy cover model Alan as her franchise’s Fabio-inspired champion, Dash. After a string of best sellers, the jaded Loretta would rather her storybook career just end. But in this broad script built upon menacing henchmen, an evil filthy rich villain compensating for being the wrong son, and a mythical legend concerning a lost treasure, the story can never end, only (hopefully) reinvent itself.
But the Nees aren’t terribly interested in fixing what’s not broken, sometimes to their own detriment. Instead, they drudge out formulaic tools to craft new thrills to varying results. Five years ago, Loretta lost her archeologist husband, John. We never learn how he died, just the ways it has left her in stasis. Her publicist Beth (a thankless Da’Vine Joy Randolph) wants to revitalize the author’s once-sterling career by planning a major book tour. She hires Allison (Patti Harrison), a no-filter, crass social media specialist who thinks in Shawn Mendes hashtags to run her Twitter account. Those people, unfortunately, can’t cheer Loretta’s still-grieving heart. A grief she often throws toward Alan, who soaks in his status as hulk cover model and romance hero. In Loretta and Alan’s fraught dynamic, the Nees find treasures rich enough to support their hilarious, albeit overly familiar, adventure flick.
To kick off “The Lost City,” Loretta is kidnapped by the obscenely wealthy Abigail Fairfax (Daniel Radcliffe in a welcomed return to blockbuster filmmaking). Think of him as a vicious John Hammond. He’s been hunting for the fabled crown of fire, held in the lost city of D, possibly located on a remote island with an active volcano in the middle of the Atlantic. And he believes Loretta is the only person alive who can translate the tattered parchment that might lead him to the treasure. Good mysteries revolve around hard-won clues (take “Indiana Jones” using a golden medallion for guidance), but “The Lost City” crafts simplistic puzzles. That flatness heaps greater pressures on the stars’ shoulders, a responsibility DP Jonathan Sela increases by relying on one-shots and standard coverage to place individual actors front and center (it’s very obvious whenever an extra is used for blocking, and it happens often).
The film crafts indelible moments through its bevy of unforgettable personalities. To track down Loretta, for instance, Alan calls former Navy SEAL and meditation partner Jack Trainer (Brad Pitt in a breezy role similar to “Once Upon a Time in Hollywood”). Both actors wield their onscreen personas to devastating effect: Pitt swings across the screen as the swooning action star, while Tatum continues a run he began in the “Jump Street” movies as the bumbling, muscle-bound heart-throb with a heart of gold. In a physically uproarious scene, Alan and Jack infiltrate Fairfax’s archeological dig to rescue Loretta. Pitt moves swiftly, easily disabling a cadre of brooding henchmen while Tatum plays Alan with slapstick appeal by taking crushing pratfalls and leaning into a knowing bodily awkwardness. Tatum has always been a physically aware actor, often downplaying his brawny exterior for laughs, and he’s never been better here, employing a nervous nimbleness and hesitant daintiness for precise gags.
Once sprung from the clutches of Fairfax, the novelist and cover model oscillate between open hostility and a wellspring of flirtation. See, Alan desperately wants to be Loretta’s knight in shining armor, to be as intelligent as her, for he to see him as more than a dumb cover model. But he is, in a brilliant reversal, often the damsel in distress. Seeing Tatum and Bullock prance around the jungle, the latter in a sequin purple jumpsuit designed by Marlene Stewart, as a well-calibrated double-act makes one wish they were together more often, especially as they play off each other like popping ping pong balls. Amid the expected off-color gags, the heart of the film asks us to see people as more than their exteriors suggest, and to learn to live and love again.
The jungle as a setting, which should be rife with dread, is a mere backdrop as unimaginative as a cheap romance novel. The henchmen, well, are henchmen. The villain, Fairfax, well, is a villain. Apart from a backstory involving him losing his media empire to his brown-nosing brother, he exists without the necessary dimensions to impose any overt danger. Luckily, Radcliffe is capable of performing some heavy lifting to imbue the manic baddie with a blitzkrieg of enraged eyes and popping line deliveries. In a script where he’s often relegated to delivering eye-rolling punchlines, he’s a proper salesman. Other components fall by the wayside too: Beth is a Black Best Friend (though Randolph does admirably carve out a couple well-delivered one-liners). The mystical aspects surrounding the crown fizzles.
Whenever “The Lost City” seems in danger of falling prey to other big-time star-studded adventures, particularly those calculated by Netflix, the obvious chemistry between Tatum and Bullock saves the day. What’s always made the two actors such formidable stars isn’t just their wicked comedic timing, it’s their uncanny ability to impart real vulnerability and a down-to-earth vibe to their heroic characters. Only these stars could make peeling leeches off of Tatum’s buttock not only an exceptionally funny scenario, but also a promising first date. And as Alan and Loretta evade lava from a soon-to-erupt volcano, work to escape a crumbling tomb, and dance in the warm amber-colored sun, they discover a kind of love that transcends fairy tales.
“The Lost City” might not be as majestic or breathtaking as its loftier influences, but it is the swooning stuff that great romance novels are made of.
“The Lost City” premiered at the 2022 SXSW Film Festival. Paramount will release the film in theaters on Friday, March 25.