Redmayne Rescues Ordinary "Theory Of Everything"

Great minds discuss ideas; average minds discuss events; small minds discuss people.

Thanks to the self-help boom of the past quarter-century, the above quote – usually attributed to Eleanor Roosevelt – has transcended cliche into general ubiquity. At first glance it stings of oversimplification – would-be inspirational pap wrapped with a self-congratulatory bow. But upon further inspection it’s a reasonably clever repackaging of an equally pervasive line from Cervantes’ Don Quixote: “It takes all kinds of people to make a world.”

No matter the wording, it’s a worthy observation. In a world overflowing with small minds – many as deep as an above ground swimming pool and just as well maintained – the great ones become all the more vital.

British physicist Stephen Hawking is one of those, a rare ocean of knowledge and imagination tasked with pushing humanity forward, no matter the kicking and screaming along the way. Exceptional to his core, Hawking has lived a life deserving of the best telling Hollywood can muster.

Enter “The Theory Of Everything,” a work that seems to know it couldn’t possibly live up to its subject, so it hardly bothers. Directed by James Marsh (“Man On Wire”) and scripted by Anthony McCarten (“Death Of A Superhero”), the film takes the path of least resistance at nearly every turn, often reducing Hawking’s story to mere slivers of a life fully-lived.

Beginning with the courtship of a young, able-bodied Stephen Hawking (Eddie Redmayne, “Les Miserables”) and fellow Cambridge student Jane Wilde (Felicity Jones, “Like Crazy”), “The Theory Of Everything” starts as an agreeable historical romance – and mostly stays there. Familial drama becomes the screenplay’s top priority, only diverging because it must. When a 21 year-old Hawking is left wheelchair-bound with a terminal diagnosis, the pic’s drama becomes more immediate but continues to discount the brilliance of its lead.

At least Redmayne is spectacular, depicting the crippling effects of motor neuron disease with startling precision. As Hawking deteriorates over the course of the film, the actor’s performance is unquestionable. Felicity Jones fares nearly as well as the lone tether that keeps him from unraveling entirely, a brilliant mind trapped in a traitorous body.

It’s unlikely that anyone involved sought to define Hawking by his disease, but the film can’t help itself. Redmayne’s physical transformation is so intense and the screenplay so one-note that the piece becomes a slave to one-dimensionality. Hawking’s illness is certainly a significant chapter of his life, but hardly his defining trait – nor is his rocky personal life.

But “Theory” wouldn’t have you know much of Hawking’s professional life, stout atheism, or general rambunctiousness. These things are mere window dressing on a conventional true-life drama, a film that only comes to life when it touches on the personality behind the struggle or when it allows Redmayne to take over the screen. Thankfully, the latter happens frequently enough to make “Theory” worth the time, but its moments of insight and nice visual touches are far outnumbered by narrow, uncreative storytelling. Silver linings aside, it’s a small-minded portrait of subject who’s anything but.

-J. Olson

Rating: ★★★ out of ★★★★★ (Okay)

Release Date: November 7, 2014 (Limited)
Studio: Focus Features
Director: James Marsh
Screenwriter: Anthony McCarten
Starring: Eddie Redmayne, Felicity Jones, David Thewlis, Emily Watson, Charlie Cox, Simon McBurney
MPAA Rating: PG-13 (for some thematic elements and suggestive material)