The Roads Not Taken (2020)

After a couple of much anticipated, long overdue blockbusters in the last few weeks, part of me has been kind of looking forward to getting back to basics and exploring something that I had no previous knowledge or expectations of. Tenet and Mulan were obviously two very different movies, but they share are similarity in the fact that I was left disappointed by both. Time for a change of pace in the form of Oscar nominated filmmaker Sally Potter’s latest dramatic offering.

Both written and directed by Potter, The Roads Not Taken tells a ‘day in the life’ story of Leo (Javier Bardem), a man whose existence is very much hampered by what seems to be early onset dementia. Accompanied by his daughter Molly (Elle Fanning), the audience sees Leo struggling to function in present day, whilst the narrative switches back and forth between a number of parallel timelines that show, through different decisions, how his life might have otherwise been spent.

The premise of The Roads Not Taken is a relatively solid and interesting one, which is why it is so disappointing that the film doesn’t quite seem to work. Why do some filmmakers (and accomplished filmmakers at that) think that the only way to make a picture about deteriorating mental function is to go down the wilfully obtuse, muddy narrative route? I understand the intentions but honestly, it turns the movie into a chore. Of course, the notion of a frustrating illness translating into a frustrating viewing experience is not something that is lost on me, but the monosyllabic nature of the film and its protagonist simply doesn’t do much to engage.

Given that the alternative timelines showcase lives lived without the presence of dementia, the muted tone of the Leo’s character remains, and that feels like a missed opportunity to inject a different pace to the proceedings. During my research I read that an entire timeline featuring a gay romance between Bardem and Chris Rock was cut from the final edit, and that is a real shame because it just might have been the only interesting thing in the film.

In terms of emotional family drama, The Roads Not Taken hits all of the expected points associated with the subject matter, with a bunch more thrown into the alternative lives. The dramatic content is high, from grieving the loss of a child in one timeline to reckoning with abandoning a family in another, back to the cold, unapologetic realities of living with dementia, there is a lot to get your teeth stuck into across the plot. The unfortunate truth, however, is that everything just seems to unfold in a rather mundane way. It might be realistic, but that doesn’t necessarily make it engaging.

The film benefits from a handful of great acting performances, even if the dialogue they are handed does feel incredibly cliche and tired. For the record, that is a criticism is wasn’t expecting to make given Sally Potter’s calibre. As Leo, Javier Bardem has a lot of work to do, ranging from a father grieving for a lost son in one timeline, to a husband regretting walking out on his family two decades previously in another, to the main ‘meat’ of his losing himself to dementia in reality. In truth, much Bardem’s performance rests in that quiet, sombre, inner turmoil, outward passivity zone, but thankfully his natural charisma and onscreen magnetism shines through and the character remains engaging even at his most impenetrable.

As daughter Molly, Elle Fanning does a lot of heavy lifting as the character who has to guide both the audience and her on screen father through most of the film. Equal parts sorrow and frustration, the role is rather an unforgiving one, but Fanning plays it well and definitely evokes sympathy.

Adding some much needed touches of life and spice to the mix are Laura Linney and Salma Hayek, playing Leo’s real life ex wife and ‘fantasy’ wife respectively. Though both are used sparingly, Linney and Hayek are the two characters in the film that bring the most energy, much needed and much appreciated.

Overall, I think it would be fair to say that The Roads Not Taken is a dementia drama that possesses all of the right ingredients, but never manages to make the best meal out of them. With a cast like that and a relatively strong premise, the plodding nature of the picture is a great disappointment. A missed opportunity on most fronts in my opinion.

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