It’s satirical and ironic….It’s humorous and dark at the same time. It doesn’t have to make sense. We’re liberated because it’s a musical. —Julie Taymor on Across the Universe in Variety

Liberated? Well, I dunno…though the not-making-sense part seems about right. But this isn’t a slag, it’s an appreciation. Because from one extravagant setup to the next, there’s hardly a frame in Taymor‘s Across the Universe that doesn’t do more than it reasonably ought to—or ever would have in the hands of anyone less attentively committed. It’s a film that never stops working, at a tightrope level of awareness, even when what it’s working at—a musical tale of “peace and love” in the shadow of Vietnam, as refracted through the prism of 60s Beatles lyrics—is certifiably brain-dead.

Obviously a problem of, umm, “content”—as opposed to the logistics of production, which for the most part are impeccable. But how many big Broadway musicals (including Taymor’s The Lion King, for which she’s almost routinely canonized)—to say nothing of standard-repertory operas: Puccini, conventional bel canto, those double dagger moments in Bellini, etc—aren’t missing an intellectual screw or two in exactly the same way? Or take French academic painting of the 19th century, those veritable “grand machines” of technical precision and detail. What’s not to like about the level of conscious craft? Actually a lot, as the early modernists understood, but there’s still a lot to appreciate as well. Which is where Universe performs its own kind of mise-en-scene magic, every visual cue meticulously engineered and choreographed, foreground to back and all points in between. Tie-dye to acid, the inevitable 60s checklist: more than simply citations here, it’s the compositional riffs that matter.

So yeah, I mostly enjoyed the thing. Like an evening with the old Boston Pops Orchestra under Arthur Fiedler’s baton, those brass and string textures caressing every popcorn strain of “Roll Out the Barrel” as if it were Beethoven or Mozart. Or legions of Cirque du Soleil performers—jongleurs and tumblers and animal handlers, maybe a dancing bear or two—as technically marvelous as they are “intellectually” undernourished, like a succession of stupid pet tricks that everyone can applaud. Isn’t there a place for that in our lives, for craft without a brain? So close your eyes and think of Cats—oh god, no! … but you get the idea.