Here's what most people know about Stephen Hawking: he's super smart; he's completely paralyzed; he speaks with a robot voice. Here's what people will know about Stephen Hawking after they see A Theory of Everything, the new bio-pic about him: he's super smart; he's completely paralyzed; he speaks with a robot voice.
To say that The Theory of Everything feels like a wasted opportunity is an understatement. Hawking has lead a very singular life, one that is well worth studying, but this film barely scratches the surface of what makes him interesting. Over and over this movie sets up scenes that have great promise, but then it never follows through on any of them.
For example, there's a scene where the young Hawking is diagnosed with ALS, a disease which is supposed to cripple then kill him in short order. Okay, that's a powerful starting point, since it brings up themes of frailty and mortality, but it is just a starting point - it's a brief glimpse of a man in a labcoat talking, not a portrait of a life lived in pain. So how does Theory of Everything follow that scene up? By showing us a mopey Steven Hawking giving into self pity in front of a television... and then that's it; the film just moves on. So he reacted to his diagnosis the same way that a teenager might react to getting dumped and then he moved past it just as quickly? That seems impossible, because he's not stuck with a broken heart, he's stuck with a life threatening lingering disease.
The fact that The Theory of Everything mishandles Hawkings' disease is a serious problem, because that's kind of the core of his story. (More on that in a second.) The film occasionally tries to give us a metaphorical glimpse of his body's deterioration, and there is at least one later scene where we see Hawking on an operating table, but the Theory Of Everything is barely grounded in the medical reality of his condition because it never documents any of the practical aspects of a life lived in and out of hospitals. That's criminal; he was told that he would have two years to live several decades ago, and that's such an insane scenario that it can't be ignored - you have to provide some sort of follow up scene where it's acknowledged that he is living in uncharted territory. Unfortunately, there is no follow up here.
Okay, so the Theory of Everything doesn't want to get bogged down in Hawking's medical condition; that makes a certain amount of sense because doing so would turn him into a victim rather than a hero. So if it isn't going to frame his life story using his illness then how is it going to frame it? Well, using his Hawking's first marriage. That's another idea that looks good on paper but which doesn't work out very well in practice, because his wife's life would also have to be defined by the particulars of his illness and we've already established that this film doesn't want to show those.
Jane married Hawking after he was diagnosed, so she knew that he was going to be sick, but there's no way that she knew she was going to take care of such a sick man for so long. Is she glad that the man she loved outlived his initial diagnosis? Is she angry that she was forced to carry her burden for longer than she bargained for? Is it easier for her to accept his illness when they are getting along well and harder when they are fighting? How do you fight with a man who can only say a few words a minute because the only way he can talk is by meticulously selecting individual words from a gigantic word bank using his thumb (and later his eyes)? Jane's character arc is another thing the movie completely botches, because The Theory of Everything gives her a lot of screen time but it barely gives her any personality. There are scenes that set up the idea that Jane might have an opinion on how her life has turned out but then this movie cuts away before she has a chance to express them. This film is only interested in portraying her as a martyr, which is simplistic and wrong. No one suffers in silence for that long.
However, Jane is still a more interesting character than the rest of his family. The Theory of Everything explicitly acknowledges that Hawking was a father by showing us more than one scene where he is presented with a newborn baby. That raises a lot of interesting questions: how do you parent when you can't get out of a wheelchair? What do you try to impart to your kids when you think you won't be around for most of their lives? How is Jane going to deal with juggling so many people that need so much help? But then once the children are born they completely disappear, never to be seen again. I suppose they were immaculate kids who never made noise or caused trouble? And I suppose Jane never had that all too common parental experience of being at your rope's end because your house is being over run by chaotic monsters? If this film never acknowledged the existence of Hawking's children I don't think I would have missed them, but when it brought them into the picture and then immediately forgot them I had to laugh. This is a film that's trying to comment on one of the most unique people on the Earth's surface and it can't even get everyday experiences like child rearing correct.
Sadly, this is a film that's so wrongheaded that it won't just let itself devolve into unintentional comedy. For example, the Theory of Everything establishes that one of the biggest tensions in Stephen and Jane's marriage is that he is an atheist and she is a believer. That sort of serious debate doesn't naturally lend itself to sarcastic laughs, especially since the gravity of the situation is eminently apparent - as a scientist he is required to think about the universe critically, but as a person who is married to a sick man she needs to believe that there is a reason behind all the suffering she's being asked to endure. However, this is another area where the film can't put the pieces together. It establishes that there is a serious debate afoot, and it keeps positioning Jane-the-believer as the moral opposite of Hawking-the-atheist, but it never actually takes a stance on the question, nor does it really explore those ideas in any depth. Again, this is a movie that is allergic to practical details: it wants to suggest that these two people are going through the same experience with radically different viewpoints but then it doesn't want to really explore how those viewpoints affect their day-to-day life. These people are representing abstract positions, not taking sides in a marriage, or using different coping mechanisms to deal with stress.
Actors often talk about how all the little things that help them build a character - how, say, they couldn't get inside their character's head until they found the right pair of shoes, but then once they found the loafers that perfectly personified their laid back character they figured out how to turn some words on a page into a living person. Although that sort of story often sounds rather silly, I do understand what they are trying to say, because I agree that the best way to express someone's character is through seemingly insignificant details that actually mean a lot. The scene at the beginning of the Big Lebowski where The Dude writes a check for .69 cents for coffee creamer tells us a lot about what a half-assed guy he is; the scene in Nightcrawler where Lou Bloom asks a stranger who clearly doesn't like him for a job with a speech that's clearly been pre-rehearsed tells us a lot about how rude and obsessive he is.
The Theory of Everything is a story that desperately needs those sort of details, because it's a bit hard to wrap your mind around the scientific concepts Hawking has created and it's hard to wrap your mind around what a difficult life he's led. Unfortunately, a scene where Hawking looks sadly at a wheelchair isn't going to immediately have the audience saying "ah, that's what its like to live with ALS." (In fact, that scene only tells us one thing - namely that being in a wheelchair kind of sucks - but we already knew that.) No, if the audience is going to experience the scope of Hawking's life, we need to see the day-to-day minutiae of his existence, because once we understand "oh, this guy can't explain his ideas to his peers, he can't raise his kids, he can't fight with his wife about God" then we might be able to imagine what it would be like to live such an unimaginable life. Unfortunately, this movie spends almost none of it's runtime illustrating those important little details, and as a result, it feels less like a Theory of Everything and more like a Portrait of Nothing.
Winner: The Cat