Mid-America at the Movies: Is "Reminiscence" worthy of a second look?

Bridget Shileny and Robert Maharry
Mid-America Publishing

Neither critics nor audiences have been kind to “Reminiscence,” the futuristic sci-fi noir starring Hugh Jackman and Rebecca Ferguson, since its wide launch on August 20: Lisa Joy’s directorial debut had the worst opening ever for a film shown in over 3,000 theaters. With a budget somewhere around $68 million (and a simultaneous release on HBO Max), it’s bound to go down as one of the biggest box office bombs in recent memory and a setback for Mr. Wolverine himself. The affable Aussie, best known for his “X-Men” character, has built a reputation as one of the most likable and successful leading men in Hollywood, and his exuberant if not entirely historically accurate portrayal of P.T. Barnum turned “The Greatest Showman” into perhaps the surprise hit of the decade back in 2018. 


But is “Reminiscence” really, as critics have argued, a lame mishmash between private detective classics like “The Maltese Falcon” and “Chinatown” and high concept sci-fi in the vein of “Blade Runner” and “Inception?” Or does Joy’s ambitious climate change parable, which inverts the brain wiping formula of “Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind” and allows characters to go back and relive specific memories, deserve more credit than it’s gotten so far? After taking a week off from new releases, Rob and Bridget are back on the case, and they’re ready to present the results of their investigation. 


(“Reminiscence” is rated PG-13 and is currently available in theaters and on HBO Max.) 


Before we get to the main attraction, what are your favorite Hugh Jackman films, and are there any box office bombs that you have a soft spot for despite their less than stellar reputation? 


Bridget: I’m going to have to rein myself in here because I would characterize myself as a big Hugh Jackman fan. I’m going to mention a few disparate favorites though. One of the reasons I love Jackman is because he’s a real Renaissance Man. He literally can do it all, including musicals, as referenced earlier. This was solidified for me way back when I got my hands on a copy of “Oklahoma” from 1999 with Jackman as the lead character, Curly. From what I can tell, this movie was a filmed version of the London revival of the ever-popular musical. The leading man is just delightful singing favorites like “Oh, What a Beautiful Morning” and “Surrey with the Fringe on Top.” 


Completely on the other end of the spectrum is Jackman’s “Logan” (2017), which I also loved. He was always great as Wolverine, but this hard R-rated version of the character finally allowed Jackson to explore the depths of the clawed mutant. Violent to the extreme, but oh so good. 


Lastly, at about the same time he was just becoming Wolverine in the early 2000s, Jackson starred in a rom-com called “Someone Like You,” which I may be the only person to remember. Ashley Judd was at the height of her fame and played the leading lady opposite Jackman’s bad boy, unlikely love interest character. The movie is as sappy sweet as it is dopey, and I still enjoy it! 


For my box office bomb, I’ll take “The Sisters Brothers” (2018). You’ve probably never heard of it...which is likely the reason it bombed. This western features a great cast- John C. Reilly  and Joaquin Phoenix as the notorious assassin brothers, Eli and Charlie Sisters. Jake Gyllenhaal and Riz Ahmed also have small roles. The film debuted at the Venice International Film Festival, received positive reviews from critics, and then completely bombed, grossing $13.1 million against its $38 million production budget. I still enjoyed the movie for its strong performances, strange humor and good ole western themes. 


Rob: My longtime friend (and fellow aspiring film critic, he’s on YouTube) Jared Buckendahl and I made a list of our favorite movies of the 2010s to commemorate the end of the decade, and I included Denis Villenueve’s pitch black 2013 thriller “Prisoners” on mine. By that metric, I feel obligated to choose it as my favorite Jackman performance. 


The film, I will warn anyone reading, isn’t for the faint of heart: it follows Keller Dover (Jackman), a suburban dad who embarks on an increasingly twisted quest for revenge after his daughter is kidnapped and the police release the initial suspect. The always great Jake Gyllenhaal plays the lead cop on the case, and Viola Davis, Maria Bello, Terrence Howard, Melissa Leo, Paul Dano and David Dastmalchian round out a star studded cast. “Prisoners” goes to some remarkably brutal places, and none of the characters come out of it morally or emotionally unscathed. But once you’ve seen it, it’s difficult to shake.


As far as bombs go, I have a soft spot for the infamous ‘90s flop “Waterworld” starring Kevin Costner, Dennis Hopper and Jeannie Tripplehorn, which I believe was the most expensive movie of all time when it was released (and, as Bridget pointed out, has since become profitable through home video sales), and Cameron Crowe’s “Almost Famous,” a semi-autobiographical film about an aspiring music journalist that feels like it was made specifically for me. It’s so beloved now that it’s hard to believe it didn’t come close to recouping its $60 million budget back in 2000. 


Alright, time to open the file on “Reminiscence.” 


Bridget:  This post-apocalyptic movie takes place in a soggy Miami. We learn that after years of unexplained wars and flooding, this has become the world. We soon meet Hugh Jackman, who plays grizzled war veteran, Nick Bannister. Nick and his partner Watts (Thandiwe Newton) run an interesting type of business where they help people walk down memory lane (hence the movie title), and they occasionally do some work for the district attorney’s office on criminal cases. As Nick explains to the viewer in the film’s aggressive, noir-style voice-over: “When the waters rose, and war broke out, there wasn’t a lot to look forward to, so people began looking back. The tank started as an interrogation tool, and since then nostalgia’s become a way of life. But for Watts and me, it’s a living.” Then one day, in walks a mysterious woman with a mysterious past. Mae (Rebecca Ferguson) says she needs a dip in the reminiscence tank to help recall where she left her keys. Nick is immediately ensnared by the enchanting stranger. The two begin a passionate love affair. But all too quickly, Mae has seemingly disappeared, with only a dropped earring as a clue. Rob, where do we go from here?


Rob: Well, early in the film, there’s quite a twist. Nick, as it turns out, has actually been spending all of his time inside of the nostalgia machine reliving the memories he and Mae made together. At this point, she has all the makings of a classic femme fatale-- think Barbara Stanwyck or Lana Turner or Faye Dunaway-- and the audience learns that Mae up and left Nick without a word. He’s devoted every waking second to figuring out where she went and who she really was, and after a disastrous trip to New Orleans (again, a better movie, 1987’s “Angel Heart,” came to mind), it becomes apparent that he isn’t going to like what he finds. 


There’s also a mysterious drug called “baca” that plays a central role in the plot as well as an underworld figure (Cliff Curtis) and an all-powerful land baron named Walter Sylvan (Brett Cullen)-- again, think John Huston’s Noah Cross in “Chinatown”-- who’s profited greatly off of Miami’s climate catastrophe and has plenty of skeletons in his closet. As you may have guessed by the film’s homages to the noir genre, it’s all part of a larger conspiracy. Bridget, I have kind of a blunt question: were you able to process all of Director Lisa Joy’s plot twists and intricacies on the first viewing?


Bridget: I think I followed for the most part. At one point, in the middle, I went back about 15 minutes and rewatched a bit (thanks to at-home streaming). Considering this movie is getting a lot of comparisons to Nolan’s “Inception,” I found it way easier to follow than that film. Yet, by the time Nick went to New Orleans to dig more into Mae’s past, I was finding the twists and turns to be excessive and self-serving...mostly there to make the movie seem smarter, and I found myself losing patience with it at about that time. Rob, what did you think of Joy’s attempts to weave such a tangled web?


Rob: While I admire her ambition, “Reminiscence” mostly reminded me why I stopped watching “Westworld” about halfway through season two. Joy co-created the HBO series with Jonathan Nolan (brother of Christopher), and a lot of the feelings I had about that show-- attempting to be too smart for its own good, prioritizing ideas over entertainment, referencing superior works of art without improving on them-- came creeping back in on Sunday night. 


Raymond Chandler once quipped that he had no idea what The Big Sleep was about, and he couldn’t explain it. “Reminiscence” suffers from the opposite problem with its potpourri of ideas and themes: is the big takeaway our cultural obsession with nostalgia, time travel, a man pondering a failed relationship, the evil of the Miami drug trade, climate change or the importance of love? Why can’t it make up its mind and stick to something? 


Sorry, I got a little worked up there. Bridget, did Jackman and company do the job for you? 


Bridget: I thought it was an okay movie. I wasn’t as offended as many critics seemed to be by it. I kind of enjoyed the noir detective vibe and even appreciated and found novel Jackman’s narration….for the most part. I personally don’t have a strong background in other noir-type films (mentioned in our intro), so it didn’t seem like too much of a rip-off for me. Yet, I also agree with your assessment, Rob. What are we supposed to take from this? I liked the possibilities and the world the movie introduced. I love a good post-apocalyptic film! But when it was all in service to an obsessive love story, I was disappointed. So much more could have been done with the premise.


I could have also used more from Newton’s Watts in the second half. She was an interesting character with a rich past, but apparently in Joy’s mind, she didn’t really fit into the story as Nick maniacally searched for Mae.  And how things ended for Jackman’s Nick really annoyed me. I won’t give away what becomes of him in the end, but he (and Jackman) deserved better. Your thoughts, Rob?


Rob: As a more devoted noir fan, it just left me wanting to revisit my favorites. I agree, Bridget, that the setting of a flooded out, Venice-style Miami is intriguing and sets up a whole world of possibilities, but I wish Joy and the producers would have opted for a more R-rated affair and dug further into the seamier corners of a city known for its decadence and hedonism thanks to “Miami Vice” and “Scarface.” Jackman is neither great nor awful in the lead role, and I don’t imagine this is a character he’ll be remembered for at all when his obituary is written. “Reminiscence” is replacement level fare, and I’d only recommend it if you’re really in a bind for something to watch. Any closing statements? 


Bridget: Well, others have probably said it already, but I’ll reiterate: for a movie about memories, this one ended up being pretty forgettable. It won’t dampen my love of Jackman though. I plan to recover from this movie miss by watching some good ole reliable Hugh from the past or maybe the well-regarded HBO movie “Bad Education” that he got an Emmy nod for a few years back.  What about you, Rob?


Rob: I actually caught “Real Steel” for the first time over the weekend and enjoyed it quite a bit. It felt like our man was in his wheelhouse as an estranged dad reconnecting with his son over a shared love of robot boxing. We still love you, Hugh! 


Stay tuned for the latest edition of the column next week, and as always, send your feedback and/or topic suggestions to Bridget (news@wrightcountymonitor.com) or Rob (publisher@grundyregister.com). Thanks for reading! 



The Grundy Register

601 G. Avenue - P.O. Box 245
Grundy Center, IA 50638
Telephone: 1-319-824-6958
Fax: 1-800-340-0805

Mid-America Publishing

This newspaper is part of the Mid-America Publishing Family. Please visit www.midampublishing.com for more information.