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SXSW: Performance-powered ‘The Lost City’ marks an enjoyable return for bigger-budget comedies

Co-directors Adam and Aaron Nee let their performers take the reins and take command in their throwback action-romance-adventure.

AUSTIN, Texas — [The following review was written as part of KENS 5's coverage of the SXSW 2022 Film Festival. Follow @RealDavidLynch on Twitter for more.]

Everything pre-pandemic is new again at the movies this year—exotic locales, long-lost MacGuffins, lead roles for Channing Tatum. “The Lost City,” arriving in theaters March 25, bundles it all together with reliable comic fizz and the throwback idea that if your characters are going to bungle their way through high-stakes scenarios, it pays to have performers who excel at on-screen bungling. 

In that particular regard, Tatum and co-star Sandra Bullock help make the lost-in-paradise adventure-comedy “The Lost City” pretty close to a triumph. 

This amicably entertaining jaunt works in other areas too; certain character actors lend delectable bite-size appearances and Pinar Toprak’s score rumbles with genuine orchestral showmanship. But it’s the side-splitting satisfaction of seeing its stars’ equal resolve at portraying total ineptitude (at least at first) that gives co-directors Aaron and Adam Nee’s film a leg up over other “Romancing the Stone” imitators. Bullock’s physical comedy finds roughly a dozen different ways to squirm, and Tatum remains unmatched when it comes to hilariously charming naivete. 

The story? It does its part, while thankfully not trying to overdo it. The screenplay may be a trope-ridden concoction constructed by a committee of four, yet its assembly is surprisingly snappy. That’s key for such a familiar-seeming movie such as “The Lost City”: for this temperament of comedy treading lightly along the outskirts of parody, there’s no better service you can give your audience than getting right to the point of an archetype, a gag, a punchline before continuing on your merry way through the funhouse ride. 

At 92 minutes, the audience for “The Lost City” is as well-served as Bullock’s kidnapped novelist, Loretta Sage, when a handsome survivalist played by Brad Pitt arrives to rescue her, Tatum’s beleaguered cover model Dash in tow (Pitt’s presence is a glorified cameo, but he’s welcome to more relaxed roles like this after finally nabbing an acting Oscar). 

So kicks off a delightful two-hander ripe with enough wit and commitment that the material never feels the pressure to go R-rated to force laughs while risking cynicism. They confront guns, motorbike-bound assassins, leeches, a villainous Daniel Radcliffe and simmering frustration with each other in the jungle. Meanwhile, Sage reckons with an understated lack of fulfillment, lending a forlorn but funny bite to Bullock’s performance, as well as a hint of subversion. 

The “Miss Congeniality” star’s career has taken recent turns for the anvil-weighted serious, while Tatum has been hanging loose with Oscar-winning directors since the last "Jump Street" entry. It would be overdoing it to say either was overdue for such crowd-winning roles as these, but it does make you wonder what other A-list talent could find a similar chemistry with their directors to resurrect classic genre flourishes templates. For all the things you can otherwise accuse “The Lost City” of being – predictable, tension-free – smug isn’t one of them. The movie is affectionate towards its protagonists, and we come to be as well.

It helps that the directors are aware of the film’s escapist-adventure lineage, spitting out cheeky references to predecessors both classic and contemporary while bearing that self-knowingly boilerplate title which could be duly applied to any of its major inspirations. I’m not sure, however, that Adam Nee did any favors for audience expectations at the film’s South By Southwest premiere when he name-dropped “Raiders of the Lost Ark” as one of those influences. You’re likelier to witness Dominic Toretto racing through the trees in “The Lost City” than a sense of awe or the future of blockbuster craftsmanship. 

Adjust your expectations, though, and in “The Lost City” you’ll find a pleasurable enough case for the continued existence of these performance-driven, low-concept studio comedies which would do well to find an audience in 2022 as theaters welcome back crowds and filmmakers ponder how much longer they can continue to imagine larger-budget comedy without having “Marvel Studios” slapped on the poster. 

"The Lost City" is rated PG-13 for violence and some bloody images, suggestive material, partial nudity and language. It releases in theaters on March 25. Runtime: 1 hour, 32 minutes. 

Starring: Sandra Bullock, Channing Tatum, Daniel Radcliffe, Brad Pitt

Directed by Aaron and Adam Nee

2022

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