Christopher McCandless’s “Into the Wild” as female empowerment drama…plus it’s feel-good, and the main character survives! Please don’t tell me that’s a spoiler–you didn’t think an awards season release was going to kill off cute, lovable Reese Witherspoon, did you? Instead, she’ll overcome bruises, friction burns, a smashed toenail–and ultimately learn a big, fat lesson about herself. “Wild” is highly watchable, and Witherspoon is quite good in it. But you can smell the “Oprah”-approved inspirational bullshit on it too. And like director Jean-Marc Vallee’s “Dallas Buyers Club” from last year, it comes stamped with the approval of “based on a true story”, so we’re not allowed to question its veracity. Hey, good for Cheryl Strayed for finding herself on the Pacific Crest trail. Her story doesn’t make a bad film, but one that exhibited a little more danger might just have earned that one-word title. As it is, it’s a decent story that takes nary a risk. The Academy will love it.
It’s really the simplest plot imaginable: recovering drug addict Cheryl Strayed (Ms. Witherspoon performing admirably as Oscar-bait) seeks to save herself after her mother’s(Laura Dern as saint) sudden death, and the reckless infidelity that leads to divorce from her impossibly benevolent husband Paul (Thomas Sadoski, in a thankless role). What better a cure than a thousand mile hike! There she encounters various perils from heat exhaustion, injuries, stranger-danger from various men, and lurking wildlife. But it’s all in the name of finding yourself–and let’s not sell short forgiving yourself too!
There’s a lot of heavy flashback incorporation throughout the film, featuring Laura Dern in angel-mode as Cheryl’s doomed mother. Dern is captivating, as always–but it’s not her story, and the film would’ve benefited from seeing her less. It also would’ve been more daring and powerful if it delved into the why of it all, in more than middlebrow snippets of reality show-like redemption. So, it all hangs on Witherspoon’s strong performance, and a multitude of pretty scenery. That’s enough to carry you through the movie, but lacks the bite to have you caring much once the credits roll. And if it manages to garner Witherspoon her 2nd Oscar, all involved will feel safety-first was the correct way to go. But that doesn’t excuse the pre-packaged feel.