Ryan Reynolds is at it again: A new round of press for his new movie Free Guy has meant another parallel round of Reynolds goofing on his former co-star of X-Men Origins: Wolverine—not least because Jackman does quick vocal cameo in the mostly video-game-set comedy. As it happens, Jackman also has a new movie out this month, so his press rounds for Reminiscence have included him discussing how much Reynolds wants to do a Deadpool/Wolverine team-up, and how Jackman doesn’t think that’s in the cards.
Reynolds and Jackman did, of course, team up briefly during that Wolverine prequel that introduced the wisecracking mercenary Wade Wilson, played by Reynolds (as well as the mutated and muted version that re-appears at that film’s misbegotten climax). Since then, Reynolds has resurrected Deadpool as an extremely popular and self-referential R-rated superhero, while Jackman has gone on to make two Wolverine movies that were actually good-to-great. Seems like everything worked out for both of them, but in the spirit of nothing being left alone, it makes sense enough that Reynolds would like a reunion that hitches Deadpool’s insouciant wisecrackery to Wolverine’s gruff irritability. It would probably be a fun and funny variation on the X-Men series that fans would enjoy.
It would also place the sensibilities of two major stars directly at odds. And not necessarily in the usual, familiar buddy-comedy way.
Jackman understand the value of franchise allegiance better than most. His career was jumpstarted by his casting as Wolverine over 20 years ago in the first X-Men movie, and he went on to play the part as the lead in six more films, plus two cameos. But most of his non-Wolverine roles are more like his part in Reminiscence, where he plays a noirish sorta-hero who isn’t sure if he’s a de facto cop or a manipulated patsy. Last year, he gave one of his finest performances as a Long Island educator whose people-pleasing slickness hides a career of embezzlement (as well as his closeted homosexuality) in Bad Education. He’s also played charismatic but doomed politician Gary Hart in The Front Runner and the obsessed parent of a kidnapped child in Prisoners. Not every Jackman character is this tortured—one of his biggest hits, The Greatest Showman, is a family-friendly musical that translates his Broadway chops to the big screen—but he seems to save most of his crowd-pleasing for when he plays in front of an actual crowd. In most of his movies, of late, any showmanship masks a hurt, a void, or both.
That’s the side of him that Reminiscence favors. He plays Nick Bannister, proprietor of a rundown facility where he guides people through a tour of their most cherished memories. In a flooded and ravaged Miami of the future, customers come to Nick, who outfits them with a high-tech crown, partially submerges them in a tank, sedates them, and talks them toward the memory they want to relive—a combination truth serum and hypnotic dream state. Nick understands his clients because he himself is stuck in the past; it’s revealed early on that some of what we’re seeing is his memory of when he met May (Rebecca Ferguson), a stunning mystery woman who walked into his life with a simple request for him to help find her misplaced car keys.
Reminiscence builds its own memory-chamber thingie out of the many, many other movies it recalls: Start with the recent time-jumping, memory-warping oeuvre of Christopher Nolan, whose sister-in-law Lisa Joy wrote and directed this film, produced by Nolan’s brother Jonathan, and continue through a litany of Philip K. Dick checkpoints like Blade Runner, Total Recall, and Minority Report, with stops at Vanilla Sky and a host of more overtly noirish movies featuring dames, drink, convoluted amateur investigations, and slightly clumsy ruminations. By comparison to her many touchstones, Joy’s obsessions feel a bit secondhand, like she’s more transfixed by the cinema of elegiac memories than the actual experiences that inform them. The ample time that Jackman and Ferguson do share on screen feels illusory, with none of the real-life notes struck by something like Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind.
Yet their elusiveness, the feeling that their archetypal, noir-ready, overnarrated courtship starts to fade before the movie’s exposition is even over, also lends Reminiscence some weight, as does Jackman’s accumulated weariness. No longer cartoonishly jacked, coifed, or clawed, he’s still outfitted in ways that recall Wolverine: In one scene he sports that essential Wolverine On Film accessory, a white tank top; when he plugs himself into the watery tank, it recalls the endless flashbacks to Logan’s own foggy past. Even weirder, other elements of the movie recall The Greatest Showman, of all things, wherein he plays another man bewitched by the beauty and singing voice of a character played by Rebecca Ferguson. (There’s even a scene using sheets hung to dry on rooftops, like an early, romantic musical number in Showman.)
It’s hard to say how intentional any of this really is; this movie doesn’t feel like the work of someone who considers a shlocky revisionist 2017 musical about P.T. Barnum iconic. But the details are there anyway, Jackman’s film career (which also includes a genuine Christopher Nolan movie, The Prestige, with a particularly dark turn for his character) floating through the firmament of this beautiful, underpopulated world. When the movie breaks out into bizarre action scenes, it feels dreamlike, rather than obligatory.
The way Jackman rattles around this effects-laden landscape, looking dissatisfied and lost, serves as a reminder of how gratifyingly uninterested Jackman has seemed in franchise-building in recent years. Logan, his last superhero movie, actually attempted to put a period at the end of a 20-year sentence, and did so with surprising emotion and credibility. (It’s one of the few superhero movies that’s legitimately difficult to watch in parts for reasons other than bad CG.) The Jackman of Reminiscence seems acutely aware of how dangerous nostalgia can be, even if his character may be ready to acquiesce to it.
It might not be fair to compare the brightly colored antics of Free Guy to the brooding ambition of Reminiscence. But they’re both movies that assimilate spare parts into virtual worlds—and Free Guy is as eager to please as Reynolds, just as Reminiscence is as self-consciously serious as Jackman. This also means that outside of their virtual realms, Reminiscence has a credible tactility, with actual sets and memorable imagery, while Free Guy feels as simulated outside the computer as it does inside. The Reynolds film bends its most interesting sci-fi ideas, about the creation of a full-on artificial life form evolving from the questionable environment of a derivative videogame, into a story of cheerful self-actualization. There’s nothing wrong with that, exactly, but it underlines a basic lack of compatibility between Reynolds and Jackman, even if they enjoy joshing around the margins of each others’ projects. After spending two decades playing a man who barely ages, Jackman taps into middle-aged regrets that don’t have much of a place in a Disney-stamped blockbuster-to-be. Meanwhile, in Free Guy, Reynolds labors to look, sound, and act like a daisy-fresh naif, sort of a peculiar shtick to be accessing in your mid-forties. Of course, both men have other modes: Look at Adventureland or Mississippi Grind, where Reynolds plays a man whose slickness has started to calcify and crack; or look at the deadpan humor Jackman brings to his brooding X-Men role. They might well be a great buddy team in the making, in some X-Men spinoff or another realm entirely. But his performance in Reminiscence, even when it succumbs to hard-boiled affectation, makes it difficult to picture him joshing around back in comic-book world, ready to turn nostalgia back into a bloodless playground.