the hugh files

Hugh Jackman’s Unquenched Thirst for Women Displaced in Time

An unholy pattern has emerged. Photo-Illustration: Vulture. Photos: Miramax; Warner Bros.

Every Hollywood Hugh has his “thing.” Hugh Grant has saying, “Er, right then.” Hugh Dancy has being married to Claire Danes. Hugh Laurie has being scary. And Hugh Jackman has playing profoundly depressed men who spend their entire lives chasing dead and/or temporally displaced women across space and time. It would be dishonest to imply that I have consumed the entirety of Hugh Jackman’s lengthy oeuvre, but I have seen enough to tell you that this man simply loves to thirst after tragically beautiful women who have perished (sometimes impermanently) or who have come unstuck in time and are whirling around somewhere in the ether. (This is not to be confused with Hugh Jackman’s other thing, which is playing profoundly depressed men who incidentally annihilate their own lives — Jean Valjean in Les Mis, P.T. Barnum in The Greatest Showman, Hook in Pan — though the two themes do inevitably have some overlap.)

Hugh has done this exact thing in at least five films, including in his newest movie, Lisa Joy’s Reminiscence, a limp sci-fi noir that bravely combines the plots of Inception and Minority Report, climate-change anxiety, and the cast of Westworld. Hugh and Thandiwe Newton play a pair of disenchanted Floridians surrounded by floodwater who pay their bills by allowing other Floridians to revisit their favorite memories in a sort of watery dream machine. One of those Floridians, a convincingly vampy Rebecca Ferguson, gets under Hugh’s skin and then disappears mysteriously in time-space, as Floridians are wont to do. In an attempt to find her, Hugh revisits his own memories of her over and over again, trading the real world for his technologically rendered dreamscape. He spends much of the film replaying all the times they did it, including once at a picnic.

Watching Reminiscence, I started to wonder if I was living in my own little watery dream machine, constantly watching Hugh Jackman lose his mind over a gal and subsequently try to pervert the basic constraints of reality. What is the meaning of this unholy pattern? Is Hugh simply drawn to movies where he gets to take off his shirt and bleed from a non-fatal ab wound while screaming at the unmoved sky? Does he get off on appearing both ruggedly masculine owing to a searing, time-travel revenge quest and emotionally tortured owing to an ineffable loss? Or, more likely, is he himself lost in time?

Hugh began lusting after the temporally challenged all the way back in 2001’s mildly received rom-com Kate and Leopold, when he played Leopold, an 1800s duke who’s not like the other dukes. In this film, which has been described as “listless” and “uninspiring,” Leopold is thrown forward in time as a result of some kind of physics experiment being performed by his eventual great-grandson, played cuckishly by Liev Schrieber. Leopold, a bored and lonely duke with an attitude problem who can’t find a suitable wife and is not unrelatedly fated to invent the elevator, soon runs into and falls for Kate (Meg Ryan), Liev Schrieber’s ex and a cynical New York careerist whose only interests are walking upstairs unbidden into her ex-boyfriend’s apartment (where she conveniently meets Leopold) and debating whether it’s worth it to sleep with her boss to get ahead. Significantly, at the film’s midpoint, she admits she has never been to Brooklyn.

The men in Kate’s timeline say things to her like “you skew male” and “you don’t do pretty,” despite the fact that she is Meg Ryan. I guess it’s because she has short hair. So when she meets Leopold, she ignores the fact that she suspects he is clinically insane and falls for his chivalry and ability to convincingly sell the diet butter replacement on which her career advancement hinges. Though their chemistry never materializes in any believable way, Kate and Leopold must still make a life-altering decision based on its theoretical existence: Will Leopold stay in the early aughts, ensuring that the elevator never gets invented? Or will Kate join him in the 1800s, when women can’t vote or own property? Somehow everyone agrees that the best-case scenario is that elevators exist and Kate loses the social and political gains that her ancestors died for.

Next up, Hugh starred in 2006’s critically maligned X-Men: The Last Stand, which is the only X-Men movie I have ever seen and only because my co-workers told me that it fit into the conceit of this blog. I’ll be frank: I have no idea what happens in this movie. But here’s what I wrote down while watching it in an attempt to make sense of its surreal chaos: “Hugh is trying to cuck James Marsden. He loves Jean Grey a.k.a. Famke Janssen, who is at first dead and then comes back to life, albeit possessed by a bad version of herself that makes her eyes black(?). At one point, someone says, ‘The sheer mass of water that collapsed on top of Jean should have obliterated her completely. The only explanation for Jean’s survival is that her powers wrapped her in a cocoon of telekinetic energy.’ Someone else then says, ‘Is she gonna be OK?’ And then the first person replies, ‘Jean Grey is the only class-5 mutant I’ve ever encountered.’ Jean and Hugh almost fuck but then she begs him to kill her. At the end of the movie he literally kills her, much in the same way that he kills Meg Ryan’s ability to be recognized as a full person under the law.” My coworkers tell me that the franchise continues (despite this movie claiming it is the last stand) with Hugh dying while still tortured by his lust for class-5 terrorist mutant Jean Grey.

That very same year, Hugh brought his tightly coiled rage to Darren Aronofsky’s The Fountain, which is a movie about how hot Rachel Weisz is and how people that hot shouldn’t have to die. Hugh plays a tormented doctor whose unbelievably hot wife Izzi (Weisz) is dying of a brain tumor, and, well, he simply won’t have it. She’s too hot! Which is made clear by the number of close-up shots of her face in blown-out lighting. Instead of spending time with her while she slowly dies, going on walks in the snow and discussing Mayan history, Hugh experiments on monkeys in an attempt to cheat death itself. As if this weren’t plot-heavy enough, the film goes on to demonstrate that Hugh and Izzi actually exist in three separate timelines at once: As a Spanish conquistador and his beloved queen, who asks him to find the Tree of Life to save Spain from “bondage”; as a Buddhist-monk-ish immortal space traveler shooting himself into a dying nebula with a tree which I guess is both the Tree of Life but also Izzi, because it breathes and has hair; and as their aforementioned modern-day counterparts.

In each timeline, Hugh and his tree/wife learn the same lesson: Immortality is both impossible and not worth it. Better to spend time with your hot dying wife, having sex fully clothed in a bathtub, than drink a cumlike substance from the Tree of Life (stay with me) and accidentally have branches explode out of your abdomen, or get trapped alone in space, bald, pleading with the cosmos. My favorite part of The Fountain is when Hugh appears to have eyeliner on when he visits his hot dying wife at the hospital. My second favorite part of The Fountain is when Darren Aronofsky shoots intense close-ups on the side of Rachel Weisz’s head to make it look like it’s a tree. My third favorite part of The Fountain is that it’s clearly about how Darren Aronofsky felt bad about making movies with his wife in them, instead of spending time with her in their real life (this will be important shortly). Anyway, at the end, Hugh looks at his hot wife’s grave and wails while planting a tree over it.

In the very same year (yes, it’s still 2006!), the world was blessed with The Prestige, a Christopher Nolan movie about latent homoerotic tension between dueling magicians. Hugh, who plays one of the gay magicians, experiences his wifely tragedy very early on, when his betrothed is killed during a magic trick gone wrong. In his blind grief, he decides that the only option for him is to engage in years-long psychological warfare with Christian Bale and then kill himself every single night on stage over and over for a different magic trick.

I’m oversimplifying, but rather than dwell on The Prestige here, as I’ve accidentally done in the past, I’d like to dwell on the year 2006. The Prestige marks the third movie in this single year in which Hugh is attempting to defeat the concepts of death and time in the name of a woman. So perhaps the year 2006 holds the answer to our question about Hugh’s cinematic intentions? In 2006, Hugh Jackman was in no fewer than six films: The aforementioned trio, Scoop, Happy Feet, and Flushed Away, about a rat who gets flushed down a New York toilet and has to move to London. He also somehow performed an entire musical, The Boy From Oz, in Australia during this time. As a result of all of this important work, he turned down the chance to play James Bond that same year, a role that would instead go to Daniel Craig, who would go on to start a relationship with Darren Aronofsky’s wife, Rachel Weisz, Hugh’s co-star in The Fountain — a relationship that surely did not start before Aronofsky and Weisz divorced in 2010. Stay with me!! In 2011, Hugh explained of his decision, “I didn’t want to be doing two such iconic characters at once. [Wolverine being the other character.] I think every male at some point thinks about playing James Bond so it was not right then, but it may be right if it comes back.”

In other words, there is a part of Hugh Jackman that regrets turning down Bond and muses that if the opportunity were to arise again, he might make a different choice. If he had in fact accepted the role of Bond, it’s very likely that Daniel Craig’s star would not have risen as quickly or shone as brightly, and that Craig may not have starred alongside Weisz in the 2010 movie The Dream House, on the set of which they most certainly did not begin a torrid affair that ultimately caused Weisz to leave Hugh’s good friend and longtime collaborator Darren Aronofsky. Is it possible that Hugh Jackman’s obsession with playing “males” (to use his term) desperate for the chance to do it all over again, but right this time, has to do with him turning down James Bond? Is the absolute glut of Hugh Jackman movies in 2006 not a reason for his turning down Bond, but instead a result of his own ability to traverse time and space in an attempt to find the correct circumstances in which he can play the spy and his friend can keep his wife?? And he just … keeps failing, ending up in other, toilet-based movies instead, perpetuating a sick cycle of cosmic displacement and Aronofsky-related butterfly effects not even I can discern???

For sure.

Hugh Jackman’s Unquenched Thirst for Women Displaced in Time