Reviewed by Colin Jacobson (February 21, 2003)
Playing make-believe can be fun! Why, just the other day I pretended that Genghis Khan married Pamela Anderson. What a delightful play wedding we had!
Of course, some attempts at make-believe actually base themselves in reality, and that occurs with The Two Of Us, a fictionalized look at the mid-Seventies experiences of Paul McCartney and John Lennon. The film launches from reality, as the pair did reconcile and spend some time together back in that era. Where it goes on its own occurs through its “fly on the wall” examination of what happened during their reunion.
While in New York to check out prospective residences to use as a home base during his upcoming US tour, Paul (Aidan Quinn) decides to take a detour and visit John (Jared Harris) at his apartment. Conveniently, John’s wife Yoko and son Sean are out of town, so the pair get to spend a great deal of quality time together. They hash out some old issues and buddy around with each other.
Eventually, they leave the confines of the Dakota. In disguise, they check out a reggae band in the park and take in some dinner before they return to John’s place. There they watch Saturday Night Live and just happen to hear producer Lorne Michael’s offer of $3000 for a Beatles reunion. (Back at that time, promoters – particularly Sid Bernstein – threw proposals for multi-millions to get the Fab Four back on stage together, and Michaels made a joke of it with his low-ball offer.) On the spot, John and Paul decide to go down to the studio and collect, which leads to the film’s climax.
The best part of The Two Of Us stems from its premise. As I noted, the situations depicted actually occurred; both John and Paul discussed their brief reconciliation. Every Beatle fan would love to have been there and see exactly what happened. Us bases some of its actions on reality; for example, apparently the pair did threaten to go on SNL. However, much of it comes from speculation.
Beatle fans will hear lots of material that connects with facts, which creates both a strength and a weakness. While it’s nice to see that the writers did most of their research, they use facts as a crutch too much of the time. Issues such as trepanning and song quotes feel unnatural and tacked-on, as though the writers wanted to convince us that they knew their Beatle history.
Much of Us comes across like an extended therapy session, with Paul as counselor and John as patient. The film relies too much on the stereotypical notion of the pair, as Lennon presents his usual cynicism while McCartney appears to be the romantic peacemaker. It tends to touch on fairly weighty issues, as it gets into past pain related to parental death and abandonment.
However, it does this in an easy manner, and the focus on Lennon means that the program lacks true depth. Paul experienced some of the same mother-related concerns; his dad never left him, but he still had his own inner pain, which is part of what connected the pair. Unfortunately, the movie largely leaves that topic untouched, and it also fails to get into Paul’s need to always come across as the lively master of ceremonies.
This seems like a disappointment, because Paul’s a much riper subject for introspection than is John. He publicly went through many of his demons, whereas McCartney’s mostly ignored them, at least in regard to widespread consumption. Since we already know so much about John’s pain, why not concentrate on the less obvious topic?
Frankly, it feels a little weird to see the pair spend so much time dealing with the psychological concerns. Of course, the two had a lot of bad feeling between them that they needed to address, but it doesn’t come across as terribly believable that they occupy their brief reunion with little more than weighty topics. But I guess the filmmakers felt that we wouldn’t want to watch 90 minutes of idle chatter, so I suppose the decision to concentrate on Big Issues makes sense.
It does bother me that we see Lennon crack on McCartney’s solo work but not vice versa. Over the years, public sentiment has gathered that Lennon was some sort of genius as a solo artist but McCartney’s little more than a hack. In fact, both experienced inconsistent solo careers, but Paul’s percentage of crap is no higher than John’s. Some Time In New York City is the worst album put out by John or Paul, and Mind Games doesn’t have much going for it either. Why didn’t Paul fight back when John slammed his “Silly Love Songs”? That number’s infinitely superior to much of Lennon’s solo junk. Yeah, Paul’s supposed to visit John as the peacemaker, but in the film, he slams Lennon for becoming a hermit; he certainly could have named some of John’s less positive work as well.
As for the execution of the concept, it seems adequate but not much more than that. Quinn and Harris fill almost all of the screentime, as few other actors appear. This puts a substantial burden on them, and that onus becomes heavier given the fame of the people they portray.
Do they pull it off? Yes and no. In the “no” category, I never remotely bought either as their subjects. Harris probably comes closer. While he relies too much on cold cynicism and barely bothers to attempt the appropriate accent, at least he looks a little like Lennon, and he manages to adopt a good sense of character.
Quinn falls a bit farther from the mark. He pulls off some McCartney mannerisms, and he tries harder to take on the Liverpudlian accent. However, he doesn’t do this very successfully, and he comes across as too bland. Admittedly, Quinn has the tougher job of the pair, as McCartney presents a much less distinct public personality than did Lennon, but I still think there was more room for character.
It doesn’t help that Quinn looks much older than McCartney did in 1976. In truth, Quinn was 40 when he made Us, while Paul was almost 34 during the time depicted in the film. However, Quinn seems craggy and a little flabby, and that makes him seem substantially older and less attractive than 1976-vintage Paul.
Ultimately, The Two Of Us remains stronger as a concept than as a film. I don’t really fault the filmmakers for this, as I don’t think it’s possible to cover this subject in a satisfactory way. The idea of being a fly on the wall for a head to head between Lennon and McCartney is so enticing that the reality almost certainly must disappoint. That’s part of the reason it’s good the Beatles never reunited; any new music or concert simply couldn’t live up to expectations. The Two Of Us is a great idea but not a very stimulating movie.
Footnote: you’ll encounter no Beatle music during The Two Of Us. This didn’t surprise me terribly, as I know how expensive that work is for filmmakers. Clearly Us didn’t have a big budget, and the cost of the songs likely would be prohibitive. Actually, I’d think they might have been able to afford some solo material, but none appears in any case.