If you don’t have a few hours to watch the cheerfully dumb comedy “The Lost City,” just stare at the poster. Almost everything you need to know about this nonsensical lark is crammed into the one sheet: the stars, the tropical location, the Bruckheimer-esque fireball. The poster is selling sex and violence and obvious laughs, with Sandra Bullock’s sequined purple onesie doing the heavy comic lifting. And while she and Channing Tatum are the headliners, the studio has hedged its bets by also cramming in a leering goat and a Fabio-ed Brad Pitt.
The goat and Pitt are among the high points of the movie, a high-concept romp about a widowed writer, Loretta Sage (Bullock), making a tortuous re-entrance into the world. A successful romance novelist, Loretta writes books featuring a hunky dreamboat and throbbing verbs. For strained reasons, she is kidnapped while on a promo tour with the cover model for her books, Alan (Tatum). He tries to rescue her and soon they’re joking through a jungle adventure featuring a lost treasure, and a deranged rich villain (Daniel Radcliffe) and his minions. Bullets and jokes fly, not always hitting their targets.
That’s more or less the movie, which is basically a vehicle for Bullock to play her most enduring role: Sandra Bullock, your supremely likable BFF. Genuine yet packaged, challenged but unsinkable, the Bullock BFF has been a mainstay for decades. She’s endured rough patches, as in “Speed 2,” but has always bounced back, buoyed by a shrewdly deployed, indomitable persona that’s wholesome, sardonic and goofy, though not (usually) insultingly so. Although she can handle a range of genres, she excels at comedy partly because she can play off a wide range of performers: Like all BFFs, she makes a generous double act.
That said, it takes a while for Bullock and Tatum to find their groove, in part because he isn’t as comfortable in his lunkhead role as he needs to be. He’s playing a conventional sweet dope, a cliché role he handles fluidly when in Alan’s exaggerated cover-model drag, complete with flowing hair and peekaboo waxed chest. But he is less facile when his character comes off as impossibly stupid, moments he plays by affecting a bit of a Mark Wahlberg whiny singsong. Is it homage, coincidence — who knows? Whatever the case, Tatum seems happier when his character fares better too, allowing him and Bullock to settle into a breezy intimacy.
For the most part, “The Lost City” delivers exactly what it promises: A couple of highly polished avatars quipping and hitting their marks while occasionally being upstaged by their second bananas (Da’Vine Joy Randolph included). There are some accommodations to contemporary mores. Tatum bares more skin than Bullock does, flashing his sculpted hindquarters in a scene that, like the movie overall, isn’t as sharp or as funny as it should be. But while Loretta isn’t as helpless as she might have been back in the old studio days, this is still about a man rescuing a woman whose eye makeup never runs even when she does.
The director brothers Adam and Aaron Nee handle the many moving parts capably, working from a script they wrote with Oren Uziel and Dana Fox. Everything looks bright and in focus, and there are moments when the physical comedy pops, mostly when Pitt swashbuckles in. It’s clear that someone involved in the making of this movie is a fan of Robert Zemeckis’s 1984 romp “Romancing the Stone,” one of several adventure pastiches made in the wake of “Raiders of the Lost Ark.” While “Raiders” transcends its inspirations with wit and Steven Spielberg’s filmmaking and “Romancing” tries hard to do the same, “The Lost City” remains a copy of a copy.
It’s too bad that “The Lost City” isn’t more ambitious, because a woman writing her dreams into reality is a potentially rich riff on the Pygmalion and Galatea myth. Like “Romancing the Stone,” “The Lost City” opens with a scene from a book — cue the purple prose and dashing hero — that its novelist heroine is writing. In “The Lost City,” Loretta deletes the scene because it doesn’t work, but she can’t erase the hero. He’s a fantasy but he’s all hers. That’s the appeal of movies like this, which at a minimum understand that some of us hunger for fairy tales, even those that promise the stars and deliver Channing Tatum mooning.
The Lost City
Rated PG-13 for bloodless violence and partial nudity. Running time: 1 hour 52 minutes. In theaters.