Berlinale 2020 review: The Roads Not Taken (Sally Potter)

Ah, the tortured artist. Every once in a while somebody feels the urge to bring another one to the forefront, usually with unbounded pathos. Never mind the fact that we have seen these stories dozens of times. Unfortunately, this time it’s Sally Potter who thought the world was waiting for one more battered soul, in a fit of lack of creativity. A shame, because her previous film, the hilarious chamber piece The Party which also bowed in competition here in Berlin a few years ago, was such a delight. With The Roads Not Taken (with such a title the puns just write themselves) her oeuvre takes a steep nosedive, no matter how hard the cast tries to make something out of this trite and tried story. And to be frank, some of them try way too hard too.

Leo (Javier Bardem, channeling Sean Penn in I Am Sam) is a writer whose mental health has taken a serious turn for the worse, leaving him mostly a catatonic zombie in his one-room New York apartment. His daughter Molly (Elle Fanning, the only true highlight of the film if there is one) takes care of him as much as she can. A budding writer herself, she endangers her career to help her father get through dentist appointments and optometrist check-ups. Leo’s ex-wife (Laura Linney, completely without nuance) would rather see him hospitalized permanently so he is out of her hair and life completely.

The Roads Not Taken follows two different other stories featuring Leo too, though they are all in his head: they are the roads the title refers to. In one of them Leo is in an argumentative relationship with his first love Dolores (Salma Hayek), back in his native Mexico. The reason for their bickering is revealed at the end of the film, a purported emotional punch that falls flat because it feels unearned. The second story finds Leo on a Greek island he has exiled himself to, ostensibly to finish a novel but in reality to flee his marriage. A young tourist (Milena Tscharntke) reminds him of his daughter, and he desperately tries to connect with her, having left said daughter years before. This storyline also resolves itself at the end of the film, and to the same ‘sad trumpet’ effect.

Though the transitions between the different stories are deftly handled, and Bardem shows a little more originality in his portrayal of the two fictional versions of his character, one can’t help but wonder where the interest lies for the viewer. Leo’s escape into his alternate life stories should perhaps make us feel more for the man dreaming them up, but we get too little actual background on Leo to care for him. Drowsy shuffling does not automatically translate into empathy, and attempts to conjure it up through encounters with clichéd rude characters come across as very heavy-handed, a bout of racial harassment in a clothing store a particular low point.

It is pretty clear what Universal Studios and Focus Features saw in this, which is potential awards bait. Whereas earlier this week we saw a Swiss/German variation of this story in My Little Sister (albeit with stronger acting), here we have an English-spoken version that could have gone a long way at the Oscars had it come out perhaps a decade ago. Luckily even the AMPAS voting body has wised up, and this will likely be forgotten by the end of the year. Given the considerable talent both in front of and behind the camera, The Roads Not Taken must be deemed a failure.

Photo copyright: Jeong Park / Bleecker Street