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WILD

Though it might literally be appropriate to describe a film about a woman’s thousand-mile walk to self-discovery, the word “pedestrian” is not one its makers would probably appreciate being used with reference to their adaptation of Cheryl Strayed’s much-praised 2012 bestseller. Unfortunately, it’s a pretty accurate thumbnail critique of Jean-Marc Vallee’s “Wild,” a disappointing follow-up to his electrifying “Dallas Buyers Club.”

That film—another fact-based tale—was of course buoyed by the performances of Matthew McConaughey and Jared Leto, both of whom deservedly took home Oscars for their work. “Wild” has a strong lead as well in Reese Witherspoon, whose dedication to the role of Strayed is obvious in every frame. But good as she is, Vallee’s film pales in comparison to another about a female hiker, John Curran’s “Tracks,” in which, it must be said, Mia Wasikowska also outdistances Witherspoon in virtually every respect.

Strayed (Witherspoon)—nee Nyland—is introduced in mid-hike, as she removes a boot to examine her injured foot, loses it down a cliff, and then angrily hurls the other after it, an indication she still has a way to go to recover her emotional equilibrium. It then takes us back to the beginning of her 1995 effort to complete a 1,100-mile journey along the Pacific Crest Trail from the Mojave Desert to the Washington-Oregon border, starting with a send-off from supportive ex-husband Paul (Thomas Sadoski) and a struggle to come to terms with an overstuffed backpack (an amusingly slapstick scene). Only later will the film explain, in a series of flashbacks, why she’s putting herself through the ordeal: her beloved mom Bobbi (Laura Dern), a single parent struggling to support Cheryl and younger brother Leif (Keene McRae) while also going back to school herself, died of cancer in 1991. That sent the girl into a downward spiral of infidelity and drug use. The hike was, in effect, a part of her recovery—and redemption.

This is the sort of uplifting story of successful self-help that makes for a great read, and it’s understandable that the book became such an overwhelming success. With the magnificent scenery as an added element, it would also seem a natural for the screen, especially with Witherspoon committed to the project as producer as well as star.

In the event, however, the result is mixed. Witherspoon is very good, exuding determination while also conveying Strayed’s self-doubt (understandable given the circumstances of the adventure) and sense of vulnerability as a woman alone in an environment in which she’s liable to encounter men who might be a threat (understandable given her own checkered past). Yves Berlanger’s cinematography is also impressive, capturing the beauty of the locations in widescreen images that are often lovingly composed.

But the comparison to “Tracks,” and going even further back to Danny Boyle’s “127 Hours,” points up some unhappy weaknesses. If Robyn Davidson’s motivation in Curran’s film remained opaque, giving her journey a sense of transcendent mystery, as presented here Strayed’s becomes all too obvious. The flashback montages are theoretically a good idea, since they allow the information to be doled out in bits and pieces. They also feature an excellent performance by Laura Dern as Cheryl’s devoted mom. But they’re not very imaginatively done, and in the end they come to feel heavy-handed, even soap-operatic.

The other problem involves the film’s failure to give us a palpable sense of the solitude that Cheryl’s trek was designed to bring her. Isolation was a fundamental part of the drama in “127 Hours,” and it was very effectively managed in “Tracks” as well. But in “Wild,” it’s relatively rare; in fact, one might think that Vallee is afraid of footage that goes on too long without some other character intruding into the action. That’s not the case simply with the flashbacks, but with the rest of the film as well. Five minutes hardly go by without Strayed bumping into someone in the wilderness, whether it be the farmer who takes her home for a meal and a shower, or the fellow hiker she spies after a dip in a river, or the journalist who mistakes her for a hobo (another welcome dose of humor), or the hunters who take an unhealthy interest in her, or the grandmother and child she comes upon on a trail, or the female hiker she commiserates with, or the ranger who wants to share a drink with her, or the three college types she does drink with. The inclination to add somebody, anybody else to Strayed’s story—when a human is lacking, some animal will do, even if it’s a rattlesnake—suggests that she wasn’t really very far from civilization and her ordeal not all that extraordinarily.

Still, like “Gone Girl” before it, “Wild” has a built-in fan base, and they’ll doubtlessly come out for it. The book’s admirers may find, though, that Cheryl Strayed’s ordeal was more powerful on the page than it turns out to be on the screen.

TOP FIVE

If you’re going to make a highly verbal New York comedy, you couldn’t do better than take Woody Allen as a model, and Chris Rock has clearly used his films—especially “Stardust Memories” and “Annie Hall”—as inspiration. He even names the protagonist Andre Allen. But “Top Five” is as insular as Allen’s movies, which appeal to a small but distinct segment of the audience, are: it’s just that the part of the audience that will appreciate its peculiar vibe—more Tupac than Bergman—is different, and probably larger. And while the movie is fitfully funny, it’s decidedly uneven, and runs out of gas toward the close.

In addition to writing and directing the movie, Rock stars as Allen, an erstwhile A-list stand-up comic and Hollywood star who’s fallen on hard times. He achieved screen clout with a series of dumb but popular action comedies in which he played Hammy, a cop who for some reason was dressed in a bear costume, but his drug and alcohol-induced antics—particularly a bad night in Houston, which saw him arrested for rape—ended that run. Now clean, he’s decided to go the serious route, starring in a historical period piece called “Uprize!” about the Haitian revolution that he’s come to NYC to promote for opening day. He’s also committed to a televised wedding with Erica (Gabrielle Union), a beautiful but ambitious reality-show star who helped him get off the booze and coke. But his movie—for which we see billboards, along with some ludicrous clips—and the wedding planning are stress-inducing, since the picture is getting panned and shows no box-office muscle against a new Tyler Perry “Madea” outing, while Erica’s completely taken over the nuptial plans to serve her own professional interests.

All this comes out in driblets and digressions as Andre is interviewed by reporter Chelsea Brown (Rosario Dawson) for a spread in the New York Times. He initially agrees to the day-long session reluctantly, since the Times’ film critic has blasted him over the years, but as their time together passes the two open up to one another, with revelations that both bring them closer but also threaten to derail what’s obviously becoming a budding romance. Naturally both of them come to terms with the crises that crop up in their respective lives, and ultimately Allen learns much the same lesson Sullivan did in Preston Sturgess’ classic comedy—that being funny isn’t such a bad thing, after all.

Would that “Top Five” were all that funny itself. It tries, to be sure—Rock peppers the script with sharp lines and amusing bits of business , and delivers his own dialogue in his customary rapid-fire style, which one supposes can be taken as a kind of acting. And the satire of Hollywood and reality-show TV is something almost anyone can relate to, even if it’s pretty broad, and awfully mild. There are also cameos by people you expect a lot from—Jerry Seinfeld and Woopi Goldberg, who come through in style, and others you don’t—like Adam Sandler, who nevertheless delivers. But there are also sequences with folks you look forward to seeing that don’t work terribly well—like the Houston flashback with Cedric the Entertainer, who, apart from a single gag about coat hangers, doesn’t bring much to the table (though the coarseness might appeal to some), or the short conversation between Rock and Kevin Hart as Andre’s agent, which comes off like bad improv.

Far better is the sequence where Allen takes Brown to visit his family in the projects, where, among others, Tracy Morgan shines as loquacious layabout and Ben Vereen shows up as an insistent old fellow whose identity comes as a shock. The entire scene is one of the few that combines drama and comedy in a fully satisfying way. But it will also test your familiarity with hip-hop culture, since one of its major bits involves various people spouting the names of their five favorite rappers (thus giving the movie its title). The same emphasis comes up in a bit toward the close, too, with a surprise cameo in a jailhouse scene. So be forewarned: if you know nothing about hip-hop, some of the movie will be totally unintelligible to you.

Too often, moreover, the film’s attempt to hit one out of the park goes foul, especially when it reaches for something like depth. That’s especially the case with the big revelations about Chelsea’s career toward the close, which are so journalistically absurd that they take the script into the realm of fantasy, and even more with a twist concerning her boyfriend Brad (Anders Holm), which not only trades in stereotypes but involves a flashback even more unpleasantly raunchy than the one with Cedric. Throughout, however, Manuel Alberto Claro’s widescreen cinematography exults in the New York locations, and Anne McCabe papers over the rough patches with her crisp editing.

With all its flaws “Top Five” represents a considerable advance on Rock’s previous writing-directing-acting efforts, “Head of State” and “I Think I Love My Wife.” In that company it certainly ranks first. On any other list, though, it would have trouble cracking the top fifty, let alone the top five.