If the manic riffing of Robin Williams occupies one end of the spectrum of pop-culture genies, Idris Elba’s glum and mournful jinn in George Miller’s new film Three Thousand Years of Longing sits, or rather stews, on its opposite end. Downplayed and downcast, he is suffused with languor, his occasional pangs of curiosity toward modern life blunted by sullen memories of previous incarnations throughout the centuries. Even Elba’s voice-over narration is delivered with a palpable disinterest.
This seems to be the intention of this hardly inept but weirdly shapeless film: to deconstruct the folklore of the genie, the bottle, the three wishes, the endless permutations of cautionary tales, and to bring the mythos back to its pre-Islamic Arabian origins. But the movie’s absence of mirth — its dogged deficit of fun — seems no less representative of these charming supernatural tricksters than Disney’s meretricious interpretation.
The recipient of this emo jinn’s appearance is Alithea Binnie (Tilda Swinton), a narratologist who studies the ways storytelling and narrative structure affect human perception. She’s been invited to lecture in contemporary Istanbul, and while shopping the bazaars, she happens upon a memento: a distorted, fire-damaged perfume bottle. Back at her hotel, while cleaning the tiny vessel with her electric toothbrush, the bottle opens, and Elba’s nameless jinn emerges, first as a hulking giant speaking Hellenic, and eventually adopting human proportions and the king’s English.
An avowed materialist, Alithea finds comfort in the prosaic, dismissing the irrational as the domain of ancient myth. Unable to deny the magical presence in front of her, however, she decides to engage the jinn — not with wishes, as she believes she is content with her solitary life, but with questions about his backstory, which he is more than happy to describe with the aid of airbrushed flashbacks dating to the reign of the Queen of Sheba.
These historical narratives, scant of dialogue and impelled by Elba’s laconic narration, constitute sprawling chunks of Three Thousand Years of Longing’s running time, and rather than offering an immersive escape from the protagonists’ hotel-room tête-à-tête, they burden the pace with empty spectacle. The characters in these adventures — real-life Ottoman sultans and Israelite monarchs — are sketched only in bare-bones outlines, so we have little reason to care about them despite their historical gravitas. More so than the jinn, they are phantoms, eluding our grasp and our interest.
And so Miller relies on decorous staging to do much of the heavy lifting, but arresting visuals can only go so far. The director, whose Mad Max series exhibits an almost peerless command of sheer kinetic storytelling, flounders amid the pageantry. Three Thousand Years of Longing borrows plenty of Wes Anderson tropes — the exotic locations, the symmetrical framing, Tilda Swinton — but without the cerebral whimsy, that crucial umami that makes his sauces so delectable. Instead, it’s replaced by tart bloodshed and gauche grotesqueries lifted from Fellini’s most self-indulgent moments.
Just when you think the story is winding toward its natural end, it spools along for another 25 minutes or so back in Alithea’s home in London, where a cloying sense of post-Brexit cynicism fills the noisy and polluted air. Pro-democracy protest posters smother lampposts around the city, and Alithea spars virtuously with a pair of nakedly racist and xenophobic next-door neighbors all too happy to unleash their bile. (Just wait until they see who Alithea has brought home for dinner!) This is what it looks like when a film, having swum in historical and mythical waters for much of its duration, suddenly decides to capture the zeitgeist. It’s desperate, it’s obvious, and it’s pandering.
It remains to be seen who, exactly, this movie is for. Too adult for children (it’s rated a fairly soft R), too fairy tale-like for adults, too esoteric for mainstream audiences, too provincial for the art-house, perhaps this is an idea that never should have left the bottle.
THREE THOUSAND YEARS OF LONGING. Director: George Miller; Cast: Tilda Swinton, Idris Elba, Burcu Gölgedar, Aamito Lagum, Kaan Guldur; Distributor: MGM; Rating: R; Opens Friday at most area theaters