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Lost in Translation.

Well, for the first twenty-five minutes or so, when Tim Robbins and Samantha Morton were wandering around a picturesque, slightly-futuristic Shanghai, I thought Michael Winterbottom’s Code 46 might turn out to be quite good, perhaps a slightly better version of Wim Wender’s Until the End of the World. After all, some of the cinematography in the early going (Shanghai hotels, Morton under a strobelight) was very impressive, and I liked the way the movie just went for it…immersing you in this world of the future without taking the time to explain all that much.

But, right about the time this very unlikely couple consummate their evening, the film starts slipping off the rails, and it’s a long way down. For one, the more you hear about this particular future dystopia — the Sphinx corporation, critical travel “papelles”, empathy viruses, Code 46, etc. — the less sense it makes. If people could read minds just by, um, becoming infected with a virus (as Tim Robbins has and does), then why wouldn’t everyone do it? And why would the rest of the characters be so consistently amazed by his ability, if it’s simply off-the-shelf? Similarly, while at first the global NewSpeak, incorporating elements of French, Spanish, Chinese, and other languages into English, seems like a neat idea, it eventually just sounds ridiculous. Si, it’s true…ultimately, every hombre and femme ends up sounding a bit like a dinner-party Hercule Poirot, until you start wondering if it’s possible to get your dinero back.

But, however weak the premises of this sci-fi vision, the real problem here is in the “love” story. Tim Robbins and Samantha Morton can both be appealing actors elsewhere, but here they seem all wrong for each other. He’s too lanky and she’s too fetal, and together they exude zero chemistry. More problematically [Spoilers to Follow], once the “Code 46” genetic aspect of the story kicks in and the two implausibly venture off to Neo-Dubai, their romance degenerates into some twisted sci-fi rumination on Oedipal complexes that’s at turns head-scratching and rather dull, despite featuring one of the most ghastly and unerotic sex scenes in recent memory. (Trust me, if you thought Meryl Streep pawing Liev Schreiber’s chest hair in The Manchurian Candidate was creepy, you ain’t seen nothing yet.) At any rate, as the last few moments hammered the subtext into the ground and Coldplay started crooning over yet another excessively fond shot of Morton, I had to concede that Code 46, however visually promising at first, turned out to be a bad, bad film. And, given how much fun Winterbottom’s 24 Hour Party People was, that’s disappointing, n’est-ce-pas?

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