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MELISSA BLOCK, HOST:

David Mitchell's epic novel "Cloud Atlas" was widely considered unfilmable, even by its author. That's because the book's odd structure, with stories nesting inside stories, seemed too complicated to be taken in quickly in a movie. But those complications were what attracted the three directors of a new movie adaptation. They came to the project with plenty of experience filming difficult stories, including "Run Lola Run" and "The Matrix." In fact, they ended up adding complications of their own. The result, says Bob Mondello, is that the unfilmable "Cloud Atlas" is now a film for better or worse.

BOB MONDELLO, BYLINE: Mostly worse, I'd say, at least compared to the book, but give these folks credit. Confronted with a novel with six plots, each with its own genre and time period across five centuries, from 1840s melodrama...

(SOUNDBITE OF MOVIE, "CLOUD ATLAS")

JIM STURGESS: (as Adam Ewing) Friday the 15th. We made sail with the morning tide.

MONDELLO: ...to 1970s corporate thriller...

(SOUNDBITE OF MOVIE, "CLOUD ATLAS")

HALLE BERRY: (as Luisa Rey) Luisa Rey, Spyglass magazine.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: (as character) Right.

MONDELLO: ...to futuristic clone war...

(SOUNDBITE OF MOVIE, "CLOUD ATLAS")

DOONA BAE: (as Somni-451) Welcome to Papa Song's.

MONDELLO: ...they decided that wasn't nearly complex enough. Rather than telling each story on its own, they opted to tell them all at once and to cast each of their actors in five or six roles, more or less ignoring whether they're conventionally suited to those roles. Halle Berry, for instance, plays a black journalist, a white Jewish intellectual, an Asian man and three other parts. Tom Hanks is a tattooed goatherd in the post-apocalyptic future, a murderous doctor in the distant past, a scummy writer in the present and in the 1970s a principled scientist who says things like this - now listen carefully.

(SOUNDBITE OF MOVIE, "CLOUD ATLAS")

TOM HANKS: (as Dr. Henry Goose) Belief, like fear or love, is a force to be understood as we understand the theory of relativity and principles of uncertainty.

MONDELLO: Don't know about you, but I understand the theory of relativity and uncertainty principles in very surface-y, insubstantial ways, but I think I understand belief and fear and love pretty well. And I fear I don't love dialogue that gets this squishy.

(SOUNDBITE OF MOVIE, "CLOUD ATLAS")

HANKS: (as Dr. Henry Goose) Our lives and our choices, like quantum trajectories, are understood...

MONDELLO: Quantum trajectories? OK, let me just summarize: We are all connected. The things that separate us shouldn't. Freedom is precious. And when a butterfly flaps its wings - look, it would be hard not to admire what's being attempted here, and there's no discounting the cleverness directors Tom Tykwer and Andy and Lana Wachowski have brought to overcoming the book's logistical challenges. They've restructured, rethought and still had time to give Hugh Grant a chance to express his inner cannibal.

(SOUNDBITE OF MOVIE, "CLOUD ATLAS")

HUGH GRANT: (as Kona Chief) (Unintelligible).

MONDELLO: They've also employed putty noses, tattoos and false teeth enough for a decade's worth of Halloweens, which makes sorting out who-was-who during the end credits kind of fun, even if it gets in the way of any kind of emotional involvement. But there's a downside to making the literary literal in "Cloud Atlas." The directors can make it gorgeous to look at, but they can't keep what struck readers as profound on the page from seeming profoundly obvious on screen, especially when every point gets reiterated six times.

Except for the sequence that's both post-apocalypse and post-English, with Tom Hanks urgently saying things like, tell me the true-true, "Cloud Atlas" rarely prompts actual giggles. But the true-true is that flashy visuals and fortune cookie philosophizing do not a resonant movie make. I'm Bob Mondello.

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