At the beginning, The Lost City promises to be something different. Adventure films, proper ones of going after treasure hidden in temples and jungles, are not as common as they used to be (though, Uncharted and Jungle Cruise, along with this, have created a mild resurgence), but they are still very much a known quantity. These are archetypal stories; they are the perennial genre of popular fiction. We go into them with expectations, wary of merely seeing what we’ve seen before. And, The Lost City seems to know this: it begins with a clichéd scene and then strips away the cliché, drawing attention to it and making a clear statement about wanting to be different.
In context, this is done by a romance and adventure writer (played by Sandra Bullock): we are seeing a cinematic rendition of her writing the final chapter of her new book, only to scrap the ideas on screen because, as mentioned, they are too predictable. A pact is made with the audience: this film is aware of cliché; this film is post-modern and this film is going to be more than just a throwback adventure movie. It is all the more galling, then, when the film is not only ‘just’ another throwback adventure movie, it’s not even a very good one. It is a drawn out, almost two hour movie (that needs to be a sharp 90) that merely pushes out far-fetched tropes that fall beneath the genre standard, even when just replicating them. The film makes it clear it is aware of cliché, and then indulges in it with no cleverness or sleight-of-hand. The further we get, the more we succumb to questionable plot decisions and ridiculous moments, and the more the film indulges in some rather crude stereotyping around its side characters.
The fatal flaw of The Lost City is in its key desire. It always wants to be a step removed from just being an adventure movie. It sets up a clear odd-couple arc of unlikely adventurers, Bullock as a novelist and Channing Tatum as a cover model, and expects that is enough to create interest. Yes, they are incongruous to the setting, but that does not a movie make. Especially when the narrative they go through lacks that incongruity, making the central juxtaposition totally pointless. They will go on the adventure, they will bumble, but not too much. It will tick off the things these movies always do and, as is the case with the least interesting films, you could predict the rough narrative outline (and even specific moments and scenes) right from the very beginning.
This can be a satisfaction: doing a known thing (and a loved thing) well creates real joy. These clichés become cliché for a reason, and indulging in what always works can most definitely continue to work. The problem is that these known things are not done well, and are consistently pulled away from. The adventure scenes are not thrilling or interesting, there’s even a key scene (involving a famous movie actor) that is edited better in the trailer than it is in the movie. I won’t spoil the exacts, but there’s a punch to the presentation in the trailer that is totally missing in the actual film, and it is further pulled down by a poor music choice. Weirdly, the film plays the song most famous for being the True Detective season 1 theme a handful of minutes before it plays the song most famous for being the Peaky Blinders theme (and for being in the Scream movies, yes, I know). It seems like a meta joke about the character in the scene both songs apply to, pointing out that he seems like a hero from fiction, but it also means songs that don’t fit and it’s (if it is a gag) an awkward one that doesn’t land.
But, awkward jokes that don’t land are the deal of the day here. This film is quippy. Oh so quippy. It is so quippy that it’s obvious that at one point it seemingly wasn’t quippy enough, and that they went back and added more quips. Characters just will not shut up, often specifically talking when facing away from the camera, residing in the distance or perhaps even off screen. You know, in the way that makes it pretty clear this is additional dialogue added after the fact. The film gives every appearance of being the result of a memo: people like quips, put more of them in your film no matter how much they disrupt character or pacing. And, the result is just annoying. Jokes that could work and driven into the ground or overwhelmed by comedy adjacent material. The wider narrative also feels bent and broken, with disjointed arcs and uneven pacing.
In fact, nothing really fits together, even the main pair, and not in a purposeful way. Opposites are supposed to attract and them being foils is the point, but the film feels like it is only motivated by genre expectation. What happens to these characters is only at all believable because we are used to filmic contrivance, because we know these stories go these ways. Bullock and Tatum are good enough actors that they almost evoke chemistry in spite of the characters. But, the script is not there. These aren’t believable as characters, even comic creations (especially as the film wants to ground itself in reality) and they do not work together. Bullock and Tatum are so inherently likeable that they so almost make it work, pulling against the script and having chemistry as Bullock and Tatum but not being allowed to convince with the roles themselves.
To be honest, a lot of The Lost City is just fine. It’s hard to get too angry about it. There is some fun here, and there are some gags that almost work, or that register nicely as something that should (or could) be funny. But it just isn’t what it wants to be, and is too disjointed to actually work. It passes the time, even if overlong, and it’s certainly not a painful experience. It certainly isn’t a good one though, and it very much should be.