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SXSW Film review: In Sandra Bullock's 'The Lost City,' X kinda misses the spot

Eric Webb
Austin 360

"The Lost City" brings to mind one of life's greatest pleasures: hitting the rides at Universal Studios. It is, unfortunately, a movie and not a log flume.

The new action-comedy starring Sandra Bullock and Channing Tatum made its world premiere at South by Southwest Film Festival on March 12 at the Paramount Theatre. Even from early glimpses, "The Lost City" felt like a movie out of time, like it might be "Romancing the Stone" mixed with your 1990s Bullock rom-com of choice. Could there have been something more novel, or clever, hiding in these jungles?

To paraphrase Sigmund Freud, sometimes a flick is just a flick.

Sandra Bullock and Channing Tatum star in Paramount Pictures' "The Lost City."

In "The Lost City," Bullock plays Loretta Sage, an expert in ancient civilizations turned successful romance novelist (who among us has not trod this same career path?), struggling to keep her spark alive after the death of her husband. This is much to the consternation of her publisher (Da'Vine Joy Randolph), who needs a new book from her star, and stat.

Loretta's begrudging participation in a book tour reminds her of her disdain for Alan, the dim, Fabio-esque cover model from her steamy books (Channing Tatum), who's prone to ripping off his shirt. Things go from abs to absolutely bonkers quick, when an eccentric and bitter billionaire (Daniel Radcliffe) kidnaps her. His deranged aim: Force Loretta to help him find a priceless artifact hidden in a lost tropical civilization ... from one of her books.

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Listen, we all love a funny, swoony Sandy Bullock joint. "Love Potion No. 9" is a classic. "While You Were Sleeping" hasn't aged great in the consent realm, but it still has nostalgic warmth and a killer Bullock turn. I'll confess, I was an extra in "Miss Congeniality" as a child growing up in Austin, but I don't think it's biased to call it the ultimate comfort movie. (In another genre, an obligatory reminder: She is quite excellent in "Gravity," and she deserved the Oscar.)

Even when the script isn't giving her wings, Bullock builds her own jet pack in "The Lost City." There's something deeply reassuring to see this physical comedy pro make sitting on a stool into a gag or evoke the best screwballs of yore in a tight hammock situation. And, goes without saying, she's a charmer.

She's got great support in Tatum, who's one of our best modern movie stars, I will say to anyone listening or even to an empty room. "The Lost City" is smart enough to let Magic Mike dance, first of all. But we've known since "21 Jump Street" that Tatum is an effortlessly gifted comedian, a bantering beefcake with Swiss-engineered timing.

Witness him sneak through an enemy camp with the grace of a Saint Bernard; see him riff with Bullock about the moral culpability of sending motorcycling assailants to that great henchperson lair in the sky.

"The Lost City" premiered at South by Southwest Film Festival on March 12 in Austin.

It's a bummer that these folks didn't get a better treasure map. For a globe-trotting adventure, "The Lost City" is so safe it would be great panic room. Easy jokes fall flat. Tantalizing bits of backstory are left on the table. Exciting new voices in comedy — Randolph, Patti Harrison, Bowen Yang — disappear into beige bit parts.

Even the so-very-game Radcliffe, forever famous for bringing one of pop culture's greatest heroes to cinematic life, is cheated out of the kind of whip-smart villainous dialogue that could have made for an iconic role. Give this man a voucher, redeemable for another bad guy part, to make up for it.

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The film is not dire, which is actually more frustrating. Brad Pitt, in a meaty and wacky cameo, gets to boldly go where "The Lost City" rarely dares. And Bullock and Tatum, left to their own devices (and also leeches), spark like torches looking for treasure. As a movie-going experience, the jungle vistas and creepy caverns can't be beat, either.

But if you want a thrill ride that ends in a splash, try the theme park. Bonus: You can get one of those souvenir pennies from the gift shop.

Grade: C+