The Roads Not Taken, 2020.
Written and Directed by Sally Potter.
Starring Javier Bardem, Elle Fanning, Salma Hayek, Laura Linney, and Branka Katić.
Sally Potter’s film follows a day in the life of Leo (Javier Bardem) and his daughter, Molly (Elle Fanning), as he floats through alternate lives he could have lived, leading Molly to wrestle with her own path as she considers her future.
It’s often said that personal writing makes for a more compelling story, which is for the most part mainly true, whereas Sally Potter’s The Roads Not Taken (apparently inspired by life experiences with her own father) takes the fractured mind of a dementia-ridden Javier Bardem and spits out an equally fractured narrative that never amounts to anything worthwhile. It also doesn’t help that the film is barely 80 minutes (without credits) exploring three different concurrent timelines.
A few days ago I said the casting of Mick Jagger in The Burnt Orange Heresy would end up some of the strangest all year, but that has been usurped here with Elle Fanning playing the daughter of Javier Bardem. There is an attempt to try and have this makes sense, but it’s about as ridiculous as it sounds reading the plot synopsis. Nevertheless, Elle Fanning’s Molly is taking a break from polishing off an important journalistic story for a day of running medical errands with Leo (Javier Bardem, who is definitely committing to not being all there mentally, even if the script betrays him consistently with overdramatic nonsense).
Even when the story is jumping into flashbacks, as Leo can’t help to get distracted by major memories all while having little awareness of his current surroundings or what he is actually doing/saying, the central dynamic is about the wear and tear on Molly caring for her ailing father who seems to progressively get worse by the day. The day spirals out of control with a detour to the emergency room, prompting Molly to question how much longer she can do this and when it’s time to step aside and put more focus on her own career, which is jeopardized by this unofficial day off. With that said, that’s as engaging as The Roads Not Taken, as despite the unconvincing casting Elle Fanning delivers a serviceable performance. Frequently, she gets outspoken whenever doctors or dentists or whoever talks about Leo in the third person as if he is not there, and even though it’s not easy to side with her (Leo is truly helpless and in desperate need of 24/7 care), the love for her father shines through turning what could have been a misguided message into scenes of empathy for her character.
On the other hand, Javier Bardem repeatedly stares into the distance, breaks eye contact daydreaming about his memories, and moans his way through a performance that could be described as not taking Robert Downey Jr.’s advice in Tropic Thunder. In some ways, he can’t be blamed for leaning that far into the dementia side of things considering the script is just a series of escalating absurd events, complete with a racist encounter that, while I can absolutely see happening for real, is out of place and adds nothing to the story.
The flashbacks to multiple timelines are also poorly handled, implying that Leo is a tortured writer that has made questionable decisions in his life (hence the title of the film). They start off with vague arguments (Salma Hayek plays a former significant other that had a falling out with Leo) which then shifts to Leo on vacation struggling to write a novel that appears to be semi-autobiographical. There’s nothing necessarily wrong with that, but there are only 10 minutes left in the movie when these memories lead to revelations that recontextualize the narrative. All it leaves is one final scene between father and daughter about the next road to take, assuming you don’t take a detour yourself and shut the movie off before it ends.
The freewheeling day-in-the life aspects of Molly caring for her dementia-saddled father would also ring more true if The Roads Not Taken had any sense to stay grounded and not challenge itself to get sillier by the minute; there is actually a scene where Molly forgets to lock the house door, subsequently unintentionally giving Leo free reign to run off into the night. The actors are trying their best under the circumstances, and I do admire Sally Potter for creating something therapeutic for herself through art (she even does the music for the film, which is actually the best part of the experience), but these roads need to be repaved.
Flickering Myth Rating – Film: ★ ★ / Movie: ★ ★
Robert Kojder is a member of the Chicago Film Critics Association and the Flickering Myth Reviews Editor. Check here for new reviews, friend me on Facebook, follow my Twitter or Letterboxd, check out my personal non-Flickering Myth affiliated Patreon, or email me at MetalGearSolid719@gmail.com