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'The Lost City' is silly, sexy, movie-star fun

Kimberley French
Paramount Pictures

There are so many Sandra Bullocks, and there are so many Channing Tatums.

Putting these two in a movie together could give you the gritty and dramatic, the glamorous, or the swooning and romantic version of both. But happily, The Lost City gives you their silly romantic-comedy version. I must admit: In both cases, I think it's my favorite.

Bullock plays Loretta, who started out as an anthropologist and, after the death of her husband and collaborator, used that knowledge to write a hugely popular series of adventure romance novels featuring a hero named Dash. Tatum plays Alan, the cover model who represents Dash, whose Fabio-ish flowing locks have made him even more popular with Loretta's fans than she is. Loretta is ambivalent as she debuts her latest novel; she's in a rut with these characters, and to the dismay of her editor, Beth (Da'Vine Joy Randolph), she's thinking about just closing down the whole franchise. Among other things, she's sick of being forced to promote her books alongside Alan, whom she considers vain and dopey.

Loretta is in the middle of blowing up her book tour when she is grabbed by a couple of dudes who work for a rich jerk named Abigail Fairfax (Daniel Radcliffe), whose reason for kidnapping Loretta relates to her academic work rather than her novels. When Alan — who does like Loretta, even though she doesn't like him at all — realizes she's in trouble, he decides to try to rescue her. So it turns into an adventure-romcom, and of course they learn to like each other, and comedy ensues.

The obvious reference here is Romancing the Stone, the 1984 film in which Kathleen Turner plays a romance novelist who gets swept up in an adventure with Michael Douglas' on-the-nose rugged adventure hero. But this is really an inversion of that idea, given that Alan is very much not Dash, and in a very funny sequence I really don't want to spoil, you get a chance to see him alongside a guy who is more like Dash, and the two could not be more different.

There's not much to this movie from a plot perspective, and few of the story beats are going to surprise anybody or say anything. (Although I do like the way that what threatens early on to become a distasteful caricature of romance writing gets some reconsideration as the film goes along.) The draw in The Lost City is simply the fabulous time everybody seems to be having, particularly Bullock and Tatum, who are delightful together, and both of whom capitalize very well on their skills in physical comedy.

Channing Tatum is one of the best of his generation at understanding his physical self and using it in interesting ways, from the dancing in Step Up and Magic Mike, to the unexpected action scenes in Haywire, to the stillness of the athlete he played in Foxcatcher, to his talent in comedy. He has not only a dancer's understanding of dance itself, but a dancer's understanding of his body and how it plays in different settings. Here, he takes a character who is introduced as a perfect specimen and finds the guy's inner doofus. And it's not just through pratfalls — it's through small, smart choices (how he runs, how he crouches, how he stands, what he looks like when he's scared) that strip away cover-model swagger and emphasize that an action hero is not just a guy who goes to the gym.

This kind of being funny is also one of Sandra Bullock's strengths. She's always been good in comedies and in action movies with comedy elements, like Speed, in part because she understands not only how to deliver jokes, but how to look funny. Most of Miss Congeniality is about this; she is why it works. And there's a moment in While You Were Sleeping in which the great Jason Bernard, playing Bullock's boss, gives her a blunt assessment of her standing as the fake fiancée of a man in a coma, and she makes what might be the most inspired "yikes" face of the '90s. When people think of physical comedy, maybe it's more traditional to mean broad and big sequences, but these are both actors whose talent in comedy is closely connected with how well they understand what looks funny.

They're also both very good at turning on a dime; there's a scene in which they do get to dance together (if you're going to be in a romantic comedy with Channing Tatum, you should certainly get to dance with him), and as silly as the rest of the movie is, that scene is pretty sexy. And refreshingly, even though there's more than 15 years between Bullock and Tatum, nobody talks about it — just like they rarely talk about it when men in romantic films are significantly older than the women they played opposite.

The Lost City isn't up there with the brilliantly silly Paul Feig action comedies that it seems to be inspired by, like Spy and The Heat. It doesn't have the joke density they do, nor the multiplicity of inspired supporting performances. (It's possible the writing got a little scattershot — the screenplay is credited to the directors Adam and Aaron Nee, plus Dana Fox and Oren Uziel, from a story by Seth Gordon. The shaggy script may have had too many cooks.) And despite the fact that Loretta talks (and the movie talks) about how "artifact near a volcano" stories about white "adventurers" are adjacent to colonization, the fact remains that the movie still is calling on a lot of those tropes, even as it tries to critique them a bit.

Still, as a broadly goofy comedy featuring two enormously charismatic leads who are perfectly suited to each other, it scratches a particular itch very, very effectively.

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Linda Holmes is a pop culture correspondent for NPR and the host of Pop Culture Happy Hour. She began her professional life as an attorney. In time, however, her affection for writing, popular culture, and the online universe eclipsed her legal ambitions. She shoved her law degree in the back of the closet, gave its living room space to DVD sets of The Wire, and never looked back.