Getting the viewer to believe Javier Bardem is the father of Elle Fanning is only the first of many points that director Sally Potter tries and fails to put across in her movie about a day in the life of a young woman taking her dad, who is stricken with early onset dementia, to a dentist’s appointment. Fanning’s Molly exhibits a Ulysses-like fortitude in the face of one ridiculously complicated trial after another, while Bardem’s Leo is lost in his own confusion, which is partly explained to us when we occasionally drift into his unconscious, where, despite his affliction, he explores the possibilities pondered in the movie’s title. None of it really works and, frankly, I didn’t fully understand why Potter would think it would. It’s not just a slog, but a tediously frustrating one.
We eventually come to learn that Leo is a semi-famous novelist who grew up in Mexico before crossing the border illegally. How he ended up marrying Rita (Laura Linney) and raising Molly we never learn, and the lack of backstory poses its own questions, like why doesn’t Molly understand any Spanish (which Leo babbles a lot in his state) and why is Rita such a bitch about her ex-husband’s condition? We do, however, learn something about his life in Mexico, since he imagines what might have happened had he married his first love, Dolores (Salma Hayek), and also why his marriage to Rita didn’t last, since he also imagines what might have happened had he carried out his plan after Molly was born to abandon his family and move to Greece. Obviously, none of these things happened—or, at least, they didn’t happen the way he imagines them—but they point up Leo’s sense of crisis as he got older and, by implication, his writing skills dried up, but since we have no idea what he’s written or what Mexico and Greece really mean to him, most of this development just feels like running in place.
The real drama is in the here-and-now as Molly struggles to keep her job as the trip to the dentist in New York City really does become an Odyssey potholed with rude doctors, locked doors, abusive cab drivers, and an ex-wife whose flip attitude makes her daughter seethe with anger. The through line is Leo’s incomprehension of the outside world, but his inner world is not particularly coherent, and neither is Potter’s movie.
In English and Spanish. Now playing in Tokyo at Human Trust Cinema Yurakucho (03-6259-8608), Shinjuku Piccadilly (050-6861-3011).
The Roads Not Taken home page in Japanese
photo (c) British Broadcasting Corporation and the British Film Institute and AP (Molly) Ltd. 2020