There’s something comfortably adequate about The Lost City. Nothing about the film is exceptional in any particular way. The performances are fine, the filmmaking is fine. The story itself is formulaic and it’s disinterested in re-inventing the wheel in any noteworthy or meaningful manner. But as a return-of-sorts to the star-driven rom-coms of yore, which relied almost exclusively on A-list credentials to get butts in seats, The Lost City calls to mind the escapist pleasures of ‘90s era PG-13 comedies. They didn’t push boundaries, they didn’t (intentionally) offend or rock the boat. It was solely about getting two good-looking people together and sizzling in their romance. Add peril and derring-do to the proceedings and you have an enjoyable night out at the movies, once upon a time.
In that respect, The Lost City is very much made in the vein of studio rom-coms from decades prior. A mild retread of Romancing the Stone, with a title that was once deliberately poking fun at The Lost City of Z (The Lost City of D, get it?), the new movie from co-writers/directors Aaron and Adam Nee (Band of Robbers) can be too calculated and conventional to score consistent laughs. But it does wield an appealingly old-fashioned sensibility that is sure to win over plenty of moviegoers who’ve missed this type of adventure. It’s entirely mediocre, but often endearingly so. It recalls a time when a movie could simply rely on a globe-trotting premise, two attractive leads, and some wacky antics for blockbuster success, which shouldn’t be lost on anyone.
The Lost City centers around Loretta Sage (Sandra Bullock), a widowed, uninspired romance novelist who has lost whatever spark she once had (if she ever had it) for writing this genre. The film gently mocks the sort of formulaic romance stories that fill the pages of many hackneyed paperback tales of love and lust, which the script itself knowingly echoes. Pushing out another trite adventure escapade in a hurried effort to meet her latest deadline, Loretta doesn’t have the heart to put her heart into these novels anymore, but it doesn’t seem to matter much, as the author’s latest book tour is, once again, dominated by the overbearing muscular bravado of Dash (Channing Tatum), a Fabio-esque cover model who inspired many dreamy-eyed fantasies for literary enthusiasts everywhere.
In the midst of slumming through yet another demeaning publicity tour, Loretta unwittingly attracts the attention of a different type of reader, Abigail Fairfax (Daniel Radcliffe), an eccentric (and very rich) explorer who believes that Loretta is the sole key to finding an elusive treasure located in the heart of a jungle island. With a volcano set to explode, time is running out, and Abigail really needs Loretta’s help — whether she wants to give it to him or not. With Loretta kidnapped, Dash and the publicity team are at a loss for what they should do. Believing the time has come to finally prove that he’s more than just a dashingly handsome book star, Dash sets out to prove himself once and for all as the hero. Though, of course, things don’t always work out as they do in those romantic novels, but then again, things will play out here as you would probably expect them to.
Perhaps what’s most refreshing about The Lost City is also what’s most frustrating. For a film that is making a point of teaching its characters that impressions can be deceiving, this rom-com takes great strides to come packaged as your typical old-fashioned action-romance. Conflicts ensue when you expect them to, and they’re resolved as you’ve seen them resolved many times before. There’s nothing especially wrong with predictability, but the execution leaves little room for inspiration or innovation. The Lost City is so contrived in its execution that, outside of a handful of clever lines, it’s never quite funny or daring in its approach. Everything comes across as a bit manufactured and processed, in that respect, which makes you yearn for a movie with a more adventurous spirit. Especially when we so rarely get big-budgeted, star-driven romance blockbusters that aren’t tied to IPs or famous/attempted franchises. The pressure is maybe too high, but it’s hard not to yearn for a movie that’s better than just fine.
Alas, as its characters break out of their shells and the film grinds along to its final act, The Lost City continues to play it quite safe, albeit loosely. Though it was once conceived as a big reunion for The Proposal’s Bullock and Ryan Reynolds, The Lost City proves a far better fit for Tatum, an actor who returns to the big screen this year after some time away from the cameras. His giddy, guileless enthusiasm is a great help for a movie that never quite finds its sense of purpose. Through his hunky, affable charm, Tatum produces a winning lead performance that is commendably unabashed and full of heart. His spirit feels renewed and his ability to play with humor and sentimentality is put to good use here.
Though this movie is mainly a star vehicle for star-producer Bullock, who is trying to find her return to her film star status, The Lost City is, nevertheless, best served as a reminder for why Tatum is one of the last few A-listers to have arrived in the last decade or so. Between this movie and his recent directorial debut, Dog, it’s clear that his star status was ultimately not a fluke.
Despite the actor’s best efforts, The Lost City lacks genuine thrills or any sort of curiosity. While Romancing the Stone made great use of its jungle-based setting and similar premise, it’s apparent throughout this latest studio venture that a great deal of the picture was shot in sound stages and in front of green screens. Granted, this is likely due to COVID-safety protocols, but it takes the adventure out of it. It takes the danger and suspense and, ultimately, the fun, too.
You don’t get the sense that these characters are in peril. You never feel like they’re really on the run. You feel like you’re watching two bonafide movie stars do their thing yet again. Not doing it poorly, of course, which is all well and good. But for a rom-com that’s meant to be a return to the blockbusters of yore, it ultimately leaves me wondering if those types of lofty star vehicles can truly be made anymore. Maybe Hollywood is too lost in the weeds of corporate appeasing to reclaim that spark, at least for now. It’s a pity, because The Lost City could’ve easily been the movie that reminds studios why we need to take rom-coms back to the big screen. And maybe make audiences fall in love with this genre all over again.
The Lost City is now playing in theaters. Watch the trailer here.