Stephen Hawking Film ‘The Theory of Everything’ Proves Biopics Have Become as Formulaic as Rom-Coms

The Theory of Everything is fine. The Stephen Hawking biopic is handsomely mounted, well acted, and inspirational in exactly the ways you’d expect — and that’s its problem. Between the warmly nostalgia-tinged photography, the mounting adversity, the impressively physical leading performance, and (so help me God) home movie montages, it may as well be titled Inspirational Dramatic Biopic. There’s nothing remotely offensive about it, and no real gaping flaws to speak of; it’s fine. Predictably, maddeningly fine.

It’s based on Traveling to Infinity: My Life With Stephen, the 2007 memoir by Stephen Hawking’s wife Jane, here played by the marvelous Felicity Jones. As such, it is very much a two-hander, as much about his scientific discoveries and the gradual takeover of his body by motor neuron disease as it is about her part in those discoveries and determination to fight that disease with him. She is the entry point (we meet him, more or less, when she does) and our constant — which is valuable, once we reach the point at which he can’t really engage anymore. And Jones, whose open, communicative face is one of her greatest assets, couldn’t be better in the role; watch all the complicated things that are happening in her eyes as she visits him after his diagnosis, or during the mostly wordless scene where she brings out his wheelchair for the first time.

Eddie Redmayne and Felicity Jones in "The Theory of Everything"

The Oscar-bait role of Hawking is taken on by Eddie Redmayne (My Week with Marilyn), and his physical transformation is rather astonishing — but then again, that’s kinda par for the course. (It’d be newsworthy if, just once, a name actor took a physically challenging role in a prestige pic and then just half-assed it.) His convincing performance, coupled with James Marsh’s direction, does manage to evoke the horror of having something like this clobber you, seemingly out of nowhere; it puts us in his head and behind his eyes as he begins to resent something as simple as people eating with their hands, and feels his pain when he’s told his thoughts will still be present, but “eventually, no one will know what they are.” And that’s the real horror.

Yet aside from those occasional flashes of real humanity and fire, Marsh does this strictly by the book. Hawking’s story plays out exactly as expected: images of our protagonist in front of chalkboards covered in impenetrable equations, eureka moments that arrive in easily digestible visual form, scenes intercut for maximum counterpoint, triumphs and tragedies accompanied by a twinkly, maudlin “inspirational” score.

Eddie Redmayne and Felicity Jones in "The Theory of Everything"

And that’s the trouble with where we’re at on the biopic these days: it’s all slavishly conformed into a woefully predictable formula, as inflexible as the Meet Cute Rom-Com or the Superhero Epic, every scene less about capturing a moment from a life than about completing a checklist. Director Marsh fulfills his duties like a man punching a clock, investing the picture with none of the energy and wit of his documentaries Man on Wire and Project Nim, or the darkness of his Red Riding installment (the best of that series).

Many years ago, just after its release, a friend gave me this mini-review of The People Vs. Larry Flynt: “Yeah, I dunno, it’s pretty good, but I got just as much out of the A&E Biography I watched the night before.” And we’re getting to a point in modern dramatic prestige cinema, which leans so heavily on the biopic, where it’s becoming harder and harder to justify their existence against documentaries that so often do the job so much more efficiently. Errol Morris’ Hawking doc, A Brief History of Time, is infinitely more challenging and entertaining than The Theory of Everything, and you’re seeing the real guy to boot.

Biopics, on the other hand, have increasingly become a mere novelty item, manufactured to generate buzz and curiosity (“I wonder who’ll play [celebrity or historical figure]?” “OMG, look how much they made [Oscar-lusting actor] look like [celebrity or historical figure]!”), but seldom to add much of anything to our understanding of the figure in question. The further we get from it, the clearer it becomes that about the only genuinely interesting biopic of our time was Todd Haynes’ I’m Not There, which threw out the entire model and rebuilt it as something complicated and weird. There are a couple of moments like that towards the end of The Theory of Everything, but they’re not enough. The specifics are Stephen Hawking’s own, but when it comes down to it, you’ve already seen this movie, and you know it.

The Theory of Everything is out Friday in limited release.