There is an eerie sense of familiarity wafting through The Invisible Circus, a pervasive whiff of déjà vu that intensifies with each passing minute. Regardless of whether or not one has read the novel of the same name by Jennifer Egan, it's impossible to deny that there's ample foreknowledge of where this movie is going and, more or less, exactly how it plans to get there. Yet, as the story unfolds in obviousness and each step is charted before its arrival, one realizes that--barring a few lively scenes--writer-director Adam Brooks (Almost You) isn't especially concerned with tension or high drama. This modest project is all about atmosphere and reflection, and, as such, it is successful.
Much like Egan's book, the tone of which finds its way to the screen almost entirely without mutilation, this narrative makes up for its slightness with sensuality. Granted, in order to observe gratuitous angles of Cameron Diaz shaking her groove thing, one must also endure near-nude moments of Christopher Eccleston (Jude) huffin' and puffin' in bed. But the trade-off isn't so hard to take when the rest of the film strives so earnestly to revisit times not long ago in years, but several galaxies away in flavor. It's something to do with Van Morrison, something to do with skankiness, something to do with ignorant, violent beauty.
"Mom," explains Phoebe (Jordana Brewster) to the steadfast but slightly muted Gail (Blythe Danner), "I want something real to happen to me. I feel like this zombie." We're in San Francisco, it's 1977, and the curiosity of a very young woman is about to get the better of her, and possibly better her. Lugging around a sense of futility and loneliness since her none-too-subtly named sister Faith (Diaz) died six years earlier in Europe, Phoebe longs to fill the holes drilled into her soul by the onset of adolescence. "Sometimes I'm not sure if my memories are real, or just from photos," she admits, lending a voice to nagging doubts anyone could share. After returning, in whirling flashbacks, to her elder sister's first capricious steps into "transcendence," she decides--against her mother's wishes--to follow Faith's path through Europe.
Faith is dead, of course, and so is the girls' failed father Gene (Patrick Bergin), but, as in life, this doesn't prevent them from returning in assorted spiritual incarnations. Gently but firmly haunted by Faith as she traces her sister's trajectory via a stack of old postcards, Phoebe vainly hopes, as Egan puts it, to be "newly born in a strange land." To this end, she makes her way to Amsterdam, where she is titillated by hippies and their drugs, accepting a tab of acid to enjoy later. (In the novel, the LSD is of American origin, one of many small tweaks Brooks imposes throughout the story. He--or perhaps the studio--also opts to trim the book's more unpleasant instances of drug use and sexual crudity.) Squinting like a baby through her third eye, Phoebe wanders through pretty towns where the film crew probably enjoyed delightful accommodations.
At the center of her search is Wolf (Eccleston), once a flagrant flower child with Faith on his arm, now a clean-cut Englishman sharing a flat in Paris with his polite girlfriend, Claire (Isabelle Pasco). Having dropped his silly moniker, he is now known as Christopher, but Phoebe cannot help thinking of him as the mysterious and hairy lupine creature who stole her sister away, who accompanied her almost all the way to her doom. After Wolf shows a tendency for selective memory in the company of his young charge, Phoebe samples the acid, discovers bliss and horror on the streets of Paris, and crashes, sick as a dog, in a hostel. Once Wolf comes to her rescue, the previously unknown fragments of her sister's final days start to fit together.
Like Terry Gilliam's superb adaptation of Hunter S. Thompson's Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, this movie is about the late '60s and early '70s "revolution" that went nowhere, that essentially burned itself out in its tracks. But of course, Brooks--like Egan--concerns himself not with the big picture, but with that big picture's harrowing effect on an intimate microcosm. Once we get to the bottom of Faith's radical journey--involving political terrorists in Berlin under the auspices of an unctuous jerk (Moritz Bleibtreu from Run Lola Run)--Phoebe begins to reclaim her soul.
It would be easy to be glib and sum up The Invisible Circus as a diluted mix of Hideous Kinky (groovy hippie sex in exotic locales), Waking the Dead (desperate questing for an extinguished feminine beacon), and Wildflowers (a bit of both), but the project definitely stakes its own limited ground. (Although, given the pivotal role of the fallen father in the tragedy, it could almost be called Waking the Dad.) Like many a literate tourist, Egan was probably inspired to transform her travel journal and her battered copy of Let's Go into significance, but, honestly, that appraisal of her fiction isn't far from the truth. Brooks, in turn, lops off most of Phoebe's preparation in San Francisco, and--perhaps for sightseeing purposes--transposes some of the European locales (inexplicably, Faith's demise in Corniglia, Italy, is shifted to the tiny village of Cabo Espichel, in Portugal), but his maintenance of the book's spirit is commendable.
Whether this level of emotional honesty is a fluke for Diaz--whose turn as the capricious, self-absorbed Faith brims with authenticity--remains to be seen, but one way or the other, she makes a fine ghost. Eccleston in turn comes across as pallid and mostly unpretentious. Of course, it's Brewster's movie, and this is a quantum leap forward from her work in The Faculty. It's as if every morning before her call, she reviewed these lines from Egan's book: "Gazing into the camera, smiling at whoever was behind it--the memory was as lost to her as if she'd never been there. Pictures are sad, Phoebe thought. Pictures are always sad."
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