Ponderous, portentous and plodding, the enervating, cringe-inducing, soul-destroying The Roads Not Taken is a complete disaster from Sally Potter. Despite boasting an all-star cast of Javier Bardem, Elle Fanning, Selma Hayek, and Laura Linney, the film is a failure in almost every single way.
Perhaps as a concept, the construction of The Road Not Taken is solid; a triptych of tales of key moments in Leo’s (Javier Bardem) life. In the first story, Leo, now a severely mentally challenged man (although we never know the actual cause), lies in bed in his apartment in New York, muttering nonsensical words his daughter Molly (Elle Fanning) cannot decipher. She is taking him to the dentist, an ostensibly simple task that spells utter disaster for her professional life.
Perhaps visiting the dentist yourself would provide more worthwhile pleasure than these passages. Definitely better conversations. In the second story, he is in Mexico, where it is immediately evident his child from a previous marriage is dead, although this is weirdly portrayed like a big mystery to be solved although its pretty obvious right from the beginning. It’s also obvious they’re not referring to Molly, because there’s no way that Salma Hayek and Javier Bardem could ever produce Elle Fanning. In the third story, he’s in Greece, creeping on a German teenager just trying to have a good time. She reminds him of Molly apparently. It’s just all very strange.
The three stories interlink, bleeding into each other as Leo’s mind wanders from place to place. While in the first story Javier Bardem’s character barely makes sense, he’s still a mopey wreck in the other two; meaning there are little compare and contrast between the different parts of his life. It just gets worse, worse and worse. The intercutting between stories could’ve been symphonic in better hands; here they offer a revolving door of cringe.
Bardem is a great actor but he’s in terrible form as Leo, his portrayal of a mentally impaired man more offensive to people suffering from such diseases then genuinely affecting. His pauses are painful, undercutting any meaning the story should’ve had. One guesses these pauses had to stay. Take them all away and the 85-minute film probably would’ve lasted 20 minutes.
The title is a reference to the Robert Frost poem, which ends with “I took the one less traveled by,/And that has made all the difference.” Yet the road Leo takes in this film makes no difference at all to the quality of the film, which seems doomed from the very first frame. Containing multiple mysteries in its construction, The Roads Not Taken answers few of them, preferring to take a poetical approach that is both nonsensical and un-engaging.
The film briefly picks up when Laura Linney arrives from another movie, gets all the good lines, hopefully, a solid union paycheck, and leaves. Objectively, Laura Linney can’t be bad, unlike the rest of the cast, who are, sorry to say, hopeless. This is a road you don’t need to take. This is one of the worst films to ever play in the Berlinale competition.