The Lost City is perhaps best experienced as a comprehensive overview of how modern studio comedies are produced on this level. The first step is to start with a novel premise. In this case, we have a modern update of Romancing the Stone that cleverly flips that film’s gender dynamic. The Indiana Jones-riffing character played by Michael Douglas is here replaced with a gloriously goofy turn from Channing Tatum (while also being loosely parodied by Brad Pitt’s “Jack Trainer” character), and the lovelorn romance novelist played by Kathleen Turner is now a widowed historian who’s notably *slumming* as a romance novelist, played by Sandra Bullock.
And then the whole project moves through a genuinely impressive assembly line process that sands down all of the most problematic and/or least salable edges (starting with dropping “of D” from the end of the original title) while throwing as many roundtables of comedians at the edit until the whole film is overflowing with the kind of quip-heavy humor designed to ensure audiences are never bored (actual laughter being a secondary concern). Not only did the principal cast spend most of the initial production mercilessly riffing on the premise of each scene over the course of multiple takes, but lines from those aforementioned punch-up roundtables were also recorded in post-production to be dropped in later – some of them by ancillary characters who are hardly even glimpsed on screen during the movie.
It may sound like I’m being wry or pithy about it when I say this, but I think it’s genuinely incredible that this process exists, and that it works half as well as it does. Studios have grown very smart about the ways in which they implement their myriad little post-production fixes, and most audiences won’t even begin to suspect that something’s off with things as they’re unfolding. For me, it was an awkward needle drop here, a scene artificially prolonged by evident improvisational riffing there, and a general tonal imbalance that threatened to throw the whole film out of whack early on. That the filmmakers were able to navigate this gauntlet at all is wildly impressive. That the film registers as an actual story with actual characters by the time it reaches its conclusion is something of a miracle.
The elements that work here work extremely well. The ultimate reveal that the backstory for Bullock’s character mirrors the story of the titular “Lost City” more than she might have suspected is thoughtful and considered. The evolution of the relationship between Tatum and Bullock’s characters feels organic and earned. Da’Vine Joy Randolph takes what may have read as an insultingly stock “black best friend” character on the page and imbues it with a life and personality that is key to making the whole second half of the film work at all. There’s even one sequence – in which a dress is used as a decoy – where the inclusion of seemingly every single variation on a line reading is actually key to making the scene function as well as it does (for me, it’s probably the funniest in the whole film).
Overall, it’s clear that this was a film that went through a lengthy post-production process, in which the seams remain pretty evident on the screen. It doesn’t boast the specificity of personality that Romancing the Stone possessed in abundance, but it does approach its main characters with a similar empathy and attention to detail. Although I’d argue the jokes here have a frustratingly low success rate (almost by default), the more dramatic elements of the film are largely well executed. It’s an impressive achievement and a pretty potent distillation of a very specific vein of big studio filmmaking.