Treading familiar territory, the Lost City gives you exactly what you expect…for better or worse.
When making films in well-worn, familiar genres, there are a few options in terms of approach available to you. You could deconstruct the tropes, dismantling what the audience is anticipating by undercutting it or reshaping the form of the story. Or you could treat it ironically, acknowledging hitting your beats in such a way that you and the audience are winking along at the same time. Or ultimately, you could simple take the “if it ain’t broke” position, presenting your film in the format that will be familiar to the audience’s expectations, hoping that masterful execution makes up for all else.
The Lost City, the new film from brothers Aaron and Adam Nee, often wants to suggest the second option, but is at its most confident and successful when simply submitting itself to the genre, here specifically pulpy romantic adventure with a healthy dose of comedy. To say the film is predictable is perhaps an understatement; the movie essentially shows its whole hand in the first ten minutes, and anyone who has seen two films of its types has zero questions where the journey will advance from there. Thus the hope of the film is to play a familiar song well enough that you don’t mind if it sounds remarkably similar to versions you’ve heard before. And to most ends, the Nees succeed in making a fun romp of a film, but that foundational lack of ambition and desire for escalation puts a limit on just how exciting it can be.
This time, the stars of the show are failed archeologist turned romance novelist Loretta Sage (Sandra Bullock) and the dimwitted but well-intentioned Alan Caprison (Channing Tatum), the cover model for her most popular series. Loretta is recovering from the loss of husband five years prior, and her latest book has come out to devastating reviews. Depressed and uncertain of the direction of her life, Loretta announces she is retiring Dash, the character Alan depicts. This news comes as a devastating bombshell to Alan, but before he can convince Loretta to change her mind, Loretta is kidnapped by evil telecom billionaire Abigail Fairfax (Daniel Radcliffe; “It’s an unisexual name.”).
Thus kicks off the adventure, where Abigail forces Loretta to discover the Lost City of D, an archeological site that Loretta thought a mere legend and used in one of her books. Alan attempts to rescue Loretta with the help of ex-Navy Seal and personal trainer Jack Trainer (Brad Pitt in full comedic goofball supporting actor mode), and things go predictably off the rails. Events play out as you would nominally expect, and everything settles into place comfortably.
The best asset for the Nees is that they have assembled a winning cast and have them all playing to the height of their talents. Bullock and Tatum have both fantastic chemistry with each other as leads/foils/potential romantic partners, and also deliver their comedic moments with razor sharp timing. The dramatic moments are less impactful, but they are still grounded enough to sell their weight. There is a delightful meta-commentary in seeing Tatum and Pitt interact on screen, a quiet anointing by the latter to the former and a tip of his hat to his own background as a famous hunk who did the work to become an Oscar-winning, well-respected Hollywood mainstay. Da’Vine Joy Randolph, playing Loretta’s agent who attempts to assist her, has a comedic journey that utilizes her skill for perfect comedic timing as well, and Radcliffe leans into the hammy-ness the baddies play in such adventures. As the kids say, everyone involved “understood the assignment” and fulfills what the story and film require of them.
This is perhaps highlighted by the fact that the actual craft of the film doesn’t ever truly rise to anything especially inspiring. With a plot as elemental as this, shot composition and set piece execution become an X-factor. Unfortunately, most of these feel like reference or rehash, making the whole experience feel like a competent but otherwise forgettable cover band: They know how to hit the notes, but you are waiting for some sort of distinct identity to emerge. The Lost City attempts to distinguish itself by making its humor about 25% more explicitly sexual than predecessors like Romancing the Stone. The original title for the film was supposed actually meant to be Lost City of D, which gives you a sense of the vibe they were leaning into (at one point the movie lampshades that the D could stand for dick). But that is in itself a miscalculation; movies in this lane were always horny, and the sexiest moment of the film is when Bullock and Tatum dance together, allowing their dynamic body language to fill in thr silence. But more often than not, the Nees show and tell over and over, offering something digestible but unchallenging.
However, compared to something like Uncharted, which plays in remarkably similar spaces, these engaged performances do make a difference; unlike Tom Holland and Mark Wahlberg, who share a winning but indistinct rapport, both Bullock and Tatum are playing distinct characters with a history and feel more defined. They go through changes as the story develops, and the characters have distinct archetypes and perspectives. This is perhaps faint praise, but it is what separates well-executed popcorn from mediocre popcorn, and in those functional narrative areas, The Lost City understands what it needs to do.
Ultimately, that is what the film seems intent and content in being, almost taking pride is providing precisely what you expect of it. At one point in the film, Alan attempts to convince Loretta that her work matters, because while she might consider it schlock, it provides people an escape from their otherwise messy lives. That is what the Nees seem convicted to make: easily digestible escapist entertainment that plays out precisely as you expect it. Perhaps asking or even demanding more than that is unreasonable. But if you were going to play the song just as it was known before, people are going to just want the original anyway.