Combustible Celluloid
With: Javier Bardem, Elle Fanning, Salma Hayek, Laura Linney, Milena Tscharntke, Branka Katic
Written by: Sally Potter
Directed by: Sally Potter
MPAA Rating: R for language
Running Time: 85
Date: 03/13/2020

The Roads Not Taken (2020)

3 Stars (out of 4)

Times Squared

By Jeffrey M. Anderson

This soap opera movie has its share of problems, but director Sally Potter's quiet, drifting tone and a batch of excellent performances allow for certain moments of rumination and emotional potency.

In The Roads Not Taken, Leo (Javier Bardem) is a man living with dementia. His grown daughter, Molly (Elle Fanning), arrives to take him to dentist and eye doctor appointments. Meanwhile, Leo seems to be remembering — or imagining — two other key times in his life. In one, he's with his first wife Dolores (Salma Hayek) in Mexico, arguing about whether to attend a festival for the dead.

In another, he's in Greece, having left his family behind to pursue a career as a writer. He meets a beautiful young woman, Anni (Milena Tscharntke), and begins to re-think both his novel and his life decisions. Back in the present, Molly's troubles increase; she hears some bad news about a potential job, and then her father wanders off in the night.

The Roads Not Taken suffers a little from its droopy tone, and the solemn way it handles the dementia-related scenes. Additionally, it can't quite find an equal balance between its three storylines. The Mexico story in particular seems to go on for quite a while as Leo walks around aimlessly, avoiding the festival that he will eventually, finally attend, although Potter nearly saves the day with a lovely shot of Bardem resting in a truck bed full of corn.

On the upside, however, Potter (Orlando, The Man Who Cried) has always had a good touch for soap opera, heading straight for gushing, truthful emotions, no matter how bumpy the route. Bardem does most of the heavy lifting, recalling his other illness-related performances in The Sea Inside and Biutiful, but also getting to stretch out in the Mexico and Greece sequences.

Fanning has a trickier role, staying realistic while also holding onto hope that her father will suddenly become well. Laura Linney turns up in a small role as Molly's mother and Leo's ex-wife, giving a sharp dose of matter-of-factness that feels just right. With this in mind, a viewer's appreciation of The Roads Not Taken will depend on whether plot can be overlooked in favor of feeling.

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