Making her feature writing-directing debut with Reminiscence, Lisa Joy proves she comes from the Nolan school of filmmaking, challenging audiences with complex themes that play with our heads and points of time. It shouldn’t be a surprise since her husband and creative partner on the hit TV series Westworld is Jonah Nolan, and her brother-in-law is Christopher Nolan. Give her props for igniting her own passion for the film noir genre and finding a way to wrap it all up in a romantic sci-fi concept that examines the meaning and worth of our memories.
Joy takes us on a journey into that memory bank via the gimmick of a new-age PI, or mind-bending detective (of sorts) named Nick Bannister (Hugh Jackman), who operates a business in a very wet and dark Miami. He and his associate Watts (Thandiwe Newton), who once served admirably in the Gulf War with him, take people back in time via a Reminiscence machine, a pod-like bathtub in which you are submerged with weird headgear designed to help unlock specific memories that may offer clients new truths about themselves. Those “memories” are then played out in 3D-style holograms as if you are watching your past as a play. It’s an interesting device that Joy merges with a number of familiar cinematic genres including the doomed romance, suspense thriller, sci-fi head-scratcher, and most particularly 1940s and ’50s film noir of the sort in which Robert Mitchum might have starred.
In fact just like those private-eye antiheroes of all those black-and-white noirish dramas, Nick gets to narrate his own story and thoughts as he pretty quickly dives into an obsession with a mysterious new customer, Mae (Rebecca Ferguson), who comes in for a spin in the Reminiscence machine only to soon completely vanish. But why and how? Nick starts to lose his own mind, jumping into his device to find the answers of who Mae is, what his forgotten past has triggered, and how he can salvage a memory that ended sadly and perhaps reverse course in the process. Watts, a no-nonsense type personality with drinking problems and regrets of her own, wants none of this as she pleads with Nick to snap out of it. “Who gives a sh*t about this girl?” she asks him.
It is a good question because Joy’s entire deep dive into the past and all its mysteries floating to the surface depends on our investment in Mae and Nick’s relationship to her. Ferguson certainly plays her up as a Veronica Lake-y femme fatale (or think Kathleen Turner in Body Heat) crooning a sultry classic standard, “Where Or When,” that she sings in a nightclub Nick revisits, and it is a consistent theme throughout, not just musically but also storywise. “It seems we’ve stood and talked like this before/We looked at each other in the same way then/But who knows where or when?” the lyrics say.
Who knows indeed, but that is what Nick is determined to find out. There are all sorts of clues and a feeling that maybe Mae isn’t at all that she appears to be, or what Joy wants us to think she is, as we get to know her with Nick through his increasingly numerous dips in that tub and flashbacks. As a straight romance lost in time, this concept might have really worked ala Somewhere In Time, but Joy is, by necessity for what passes muster in major studio releases these days, forced to throw in some villains with evil ambition plus a couple of action sequences that could be out of any number of movies. There are also Blade Runner influences here, along with the fascination of time travel as defined in the mind. Can we reinvestigate our past, and for what purpose? How important are the memories that we leave behind?
Jackman is a comforting presence here where a big star is definitely needed to put this stuff across and keep us engaged. A little more humor might have helped, but he is earnest and emotionally engaged enough to make Nick’s plight believable in the circumstances. Newton actually has the most scenes to steal and thankfully she knows exactly how to steal them. Ferguson gets her moments toward the end, but by and large must play Mae for the enigma that she is. Cliff Curtis as a shady friend and cop named Cyrus Booth gets some nice scenes, and augments Daniel Wu’s underused Saint Joe in the bad guy department, both taking the plot into more familiar movie tropes.
The real stars here are cinematographer Paul Cameron, production designer Howard Cummings (who makes the most of shooting Miami in New Orleans, which is also used), and a terrific score from composer Ramin Djawadi. The latter three, along with Newton, all have collaborated with Joy on Westworld and they don’t let her down. Only the rather convoluted and over-expository script does that. But I have to say the movie is almost atmospheric enough to forgive some overwrought plotting. There are twists and turns toward the end that, for whatever reason, sadly really don’t have the impact Joy clearly intended. For all the effort Reminiscence is just not all that memorable. Still I applaud Joy for giving a try. It is not easy to pull off original, adult-oriented IP these days. For whatever flaws it certainly has, it also shows, as her work in television, that she has the chops to make something, well, unforgettable, but “who knows where or when?”
Producers are Joy, Jonathan Nolan, Michael De Luca and Aaron Ryder. Warner Bros releases it in theaters and for a month on HBO Max beginning Friday.
Check out my video review above with scenes from the movie. Do you plan to see Reminiscence? Let us know what you think.