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Moriarty's Got Much Love For ALMOST FAMOUS!!

Hey, everyone.

"Moriarty" here with some Rumblings From The Lab.

“The only true currency in this bankrupt world is what we share with someone else when we’re uncool.”

That just might be the single best line of dialogue I've heard in a film all year. It's certainly the truest. When legendary rock critic Lester Bangs says that to 15 year old William Miller late in ALMOST FAMOUS as they discuss a crisis William faces in finishing a major article for ROLLING STONE, though, he isn't just talking to the kid. He's talking to all of us who lay our opinions out there for people to read and react to. It's my new war cry.

When I first wrote about the screenplay that was still called Cameron Crowe's UNTITLED, it was April of 1999. At that point, I was mad in love with the script, with the characters, with the sheer thought that I might be able to join Stillwater and William and Penny Lane and the Band-Aids on the Almost Famous Tour of 1973. In that original script review, I reprinted a brief excerpt from the script, a description of an early moment in the film when William first finds the albums left for him by his sister. It's amazing to me how precisely writer/director Cameron Crowe translated his script from the page to the screen. So often, scripts are just suggestions, one part of the melange that is a finished film. Not so here. Crowe is a writer before anything else, and everything that we see in the finished film... all that nuance, all that texture, all those little bits and pieces of life that practically spill off the screen... they were all in there. As much as I fell in love with these characters on the page, they hit me twice as hard in the flesh.

Any serious discussion of this film has to start with the performances offered by the incredible ensemble of actors that Crowe has assembled. In the lead, he's got newcomer Patrick Fugit, and there's a sort of magic in the casting. It was Harry who asked me the other day if I thought Fugit could have played Frodo in LORD OF THE RINGS, and I know exactly why he brings it up. It's the eyes. Fugit's got a role that is fairly unforgiving, and many actors would have come across as a blank. He's the one who has to stand at the edge of the frame, taking in the carnival that plays out all around him. He's the observer, the Alice in this particular Wonderland. Fugit turns out to be perfect because of those eyes, so wide they look like they're trying to figure out a way to open even further, let even more of this world soak in. In one great and memorable sequence, the various Band-Aids (Fairuza Balk, Anna Paquin, and Liz Stauber) decide that they're going to deflower William, and as they dance around him, shedding clothes and singing, "Death to Opie," everything slows down around Fugit. From across the room, he meets the gaze of the film's heart, Miss Penny Lane, and they lock eyes. Crowe pushes in impossibly close on their eyes, intercutting as they share this moment. What you find in those eyes will depend in large part on what you remember about your first real love, your first sex, your first taste of freedom. It will depend on who you shared those moments with. But there's no way you can miss the electric connection between the two of them.

Kate Hudson, who plays Penny in the film, doesn't just become a movie star in this movie. That's too easy. It's understatement of an almost dangerous proportion. Hudson is a muse here. She's not playing one; she's become one. I wonder who Cameron Crowe's real Penny Lane was all those years ago. I wonder, because I know there was one. All writers and painters and musicians and poets have their muses. I know that for me, the muses that have shaped the various stages of my life have rarely been the women I was actually with. There's something untouchable about a muse, something divine. No matter how much we fall in love with them, we also know that it's possible to make them too real, to rob them of that mystery, if we get too close. I may find myself drunk at the mere presence of a certain intoxicating someone in my life right now (and I hope you know who you are), but a big part of that is the freedom she represents. She's like a flame, beautiful, hypnotic, impossible to hold. That's Kate Hudson in this movie. That's Penny Lane. She's achingly human and real, and when her armor falls late in the film and we see beyond the facade she's constructed, it's that fragility that Crowe paints as the thing most worth loving about Penny. The way Crowe uses the music cue "My Cherie Amour" in the film is wrenching because of the sense of irony in the timing and because of the lovely longing in Stevie Wonder's voice. William falls in love before our eyes, and we fall in love for all the same reasons.

One of the signatures of a Cameron Crowe piece seems to be a romanticism that is never forced or false, but that is instead built on the eccentricities that really do fuel attraction. We don't just root for his characters to end up together because they're played by a Tom Hanks or a Meg Ryan. We don't feel for them just because we're told to. Instead, our affections are earned. We take each hesitant step along with the people we're watching. When Lloyd Dobler stands under Diane Court's window, radio held above his head, we know why he can't sleep, why he can't eat. When Jerry Maguire stumbles into Dorothy Boyd's living room and stammers out his reasons for being with her, his nerves are understandable, his fear of rejection ours. This film contains a lovely scene, quiet and simple, that perfectly sums up Crowe's gift. Penny's on an airplane as it taxis away from the terminal, and she's lost in thought. Inside, William watches, walking from window to window. On the plane, it's as if Penny hears something, as if William somehow calls her, and she turns, already knowing what she'll find. And as the plane speeds up, so does William, running to keep up, waving, that perpectual wry little smile of his locked on his face. Penny puts her hand up, and for that lingering moment, they're connected. The plane pulls away finally just as William runs out of terminal, and he stops, pressed against the last window, and even though all he got was that look, that one gesture, we can tell that it's enough. It's what he needed. And it's just heartbreaking.

The texture of Crowe's world is due to the remarkable work done by his entire supporting cast and by his director of photography, the gifted John (BRAVEHEART, WIND, THE THIN RED LINE) Toll, which manages to burnish the proceedings with the golden haze of memory without ever tipping the whole thing over into being a mere nostalgia piece. I thought Jason Lee had charisma to spare the first time I saw him in a film, but he's come a long way since MALL RATS. He manages to invest Stillwater's lead singer Jeff Bebe with all sorts of great quirks and exposed insecurities without shortchanging him on the magnetism needed to front a rock band. Onstage, Lee is truly impressive, as is Billy Crudup's Russell Hammond, the guitar player who is the star of Stillwater. If Brad Pitt had played this role, as was originally intended, he would have hopelessly skewed the film's focus, and it could have ruined the film. What Crudup does so well is bring to life one of those dashing, rumpled, dangerous Jim Morrison doomed rock star types, dripping with rock star sex appeal, but without trying to steal the movie. It's a performance that would make a major star out of someone who was less of a chameleon. Crudup's a character actor first, though, transforming himself completely from role to role, and I think the unique charms of Russell Hammond are realized with a truly inspiring precision. Philip Seymour Hoffman and France McDormand are both actors for whom one runs out of praise, so consistent and so strong is the work they do. They continue that trend here, with Hoffman etching a memorable portrait of the notorious Lester Bangs that I found deeply touching. Knowing that Crowe was mentored for a time by the real Bangs, I thought it was a wonderful tribute to a teacher, a friend, a voice that is sadly missed from contemporary rock writing. Hell, Lester would have been out of the business by now anyway. As he says, rock is already in its death throes in 1973, slowly suffocating under the crush of money and corporate control. No, Lester would have moved on, found something else to apply his wicked wit and scathing indignation to, something worthy. Bangs is a remarkable figure in the film, always on the periphery of the movie, never a major character. His observations are the ones that really frame the story, though, and he scores major points every time he opens his mouth. Hoffman does in a few brief scenes what some actors never do, even in starring roles. He gives a real and recognizable soul to the character, bringing him fully to life. McDormand pulls off an equally impressive trick, taking a role that could be unlikeable, shrill, offputting, and shrewish, and turning it into something much richer and smarter. Elaine Miller is a great mother, but because of the times she's living in, she comes across as restrictive and even smothering to her two kids (an older brother seems to have vanished from early drafts of the script). Her daughter Anita (played well by Zooey Deschanel) escapes as soon as she turns 18, and it's to Crowe's great credit that we understand both sides, can see things through both sets of eyes, and that Elaine and Anita both retain our sympathies.

So... have I convinced you yet that I love this film? Because I do. I've got a but, though... a big but. A Jennifer Lopez sized big but.

I love ALMOST FAMOUS, but I think it's only by the grace of God that Dreamworks didn't ruin the film by pushing Crowe to cut it to just over two hours in length. I think the missing 40 minutes of footage would have made the difference between me saying this is a wonderful movie and me saying this is a classic, an instant addition to the pantheon. ALMOST FAMOUS is not the film it could have been, and that eats at me in a way I can barely define.

Let me see if I can explain this. In 1989, I picked up a copy of Orson Scott Card's rather extraordinary novelization of THE ABYSS. In the foreword, he explained how James Cameron had come to him, had involved him in the filmmaking process in an effort to make sure that the book was just as good, just as powerful, as the film itself. There was also quite a bit written in that foreword about how the novel was EXACTLY the same story as the film, with extra care taken to guarantee this. Card was involved all through production, using the dailies to guide the way he wrote about characters, contributing backstories that the actors incorporated into their work. It's a pretty amazing read, and when it hit stores about six weeks before the film came out, I didn't think twice. I bought one and I read it in a single sitting. At the end, I was blown away. The conclusion of the story, in particular, impressed me, and I began wondering how Cameron was going to bring to life the giant wave effect, the near destruction of everything. I loved how the NTIs played into the story, the way that script was built. I loved the relationship between Bud and Lindsay Brigman, and I was ruined by the scene as Bud descends into the abyss, by Lindsay's haunting memory of the two candles in the dark. When the film finally came out, I literally couldn't wait to see it. I had been raving to Harry Lime for weeks about the story, and I knew that the film would be amazing, would live up to the story I'd read. Yet as I walked out of the theater two-plus hours later, I didn't know what to feel. All those things I described above... they weren't there. They'd been excised, and what was left was a film that felt unfinished somehow. Don't get me wrong... the theatrical release version of THE ABYSS is a film that I really love. I think it's expertly made, well performed, filled with moments of real and lasting power. But there was no denying that it seemed to hop the track somewhere in act three, and the editing of the ending was so obvious, even to my friends who hadn't read the book, that it seemed to be nearly catastrophic on first viewing. It wasn't until years later with the restored version that I finally saw the film I'd been promised, and the added material made it an entirely different experience, better... deeper.

And now I've got that same feeling once again. It took me two days to write this review just because of how careful I wanted to be. I love ALMOST FAMOUS, but I cannot shake the feeling that the last third of the film is rushed, lacking in texture in a way that is only really noticeable because of the near-perfection of all that's come up to that point. When a film is this good, when it's working this well, why cut material? In this particular case, it's because of the dreaded "four-showtimes-versus-five" problem, and it's also because of numbers garnered from test screenings. I just recently heard a scathing Bill Hicks routine about the test screening of movies the other day, and I can feel his righteous anger when I think that a bunch of 15 year olds at the Woodland Hills Promenade have kept me from having the transcendent experience that I know this film was capable of being. Am I greedy? Am I going to sound ungrateful at the release of a film this good in a year this bad? Possibly. I don't care, though. A mistake was made, a great wrong done. ALMOST FAMOUS is almost brilliant, and that rush to get to the end that takes over towards the end of the film, that sort of shorthand that takes over in place of the nuanced storytelling of the rest of the movie, is a flaw that need never have happened. I have heard talk that Dreamworks is releasing a 2-DVD set of this film, one disc featuring ALMOST FAMOUS, the cut you'll see in theaters starting today in NY and LA, Friday in the rest of the country. The other disc is going to be UNTITLED, the original cut of the film that John Robie and Gregor Samsa and Segue Zagnut all fell in love with earlier this year. I take solace in the fact that I'll see this film the way Crowe wanted at some point, but I wish it was that film in theates now.

As it stands, I'll go back to see this again and again in the weeks ahead. I have no choice. That music, these people, those moments... it's irresistable. But every time I recommend this film, that doubt, that frustration... I'm going to feel it gnaw at me a bit. I wish Dreamworks had ignored their numbers and just trusted Crowe. I know, I know... it's not cool to make a film that's nearly three hours. It's pretentious. The audience can't handle it. Just this morning, when I made my appearance on THE BETH LAPIDES EXPERIENCE over at Comedy, the host of that show wanted nothing to do with a three hour film, saying she had better things to do. Well, Cameron Crowe has made a tribute to the power of being uncool here, of doing what's right even when it isn't popular, and the cutting of the film contradicts everything it says, and I can honestly say that there's few better things to do than see this film, even in its current truncated form.

Don't just enjoy this film. Roll around in it. Revel in it. It's as pure a gift as we've been given by any filmmaker so far this year. And if you catch the film this weekend in LA, keep your eye out for the decrepit old Evil Genius with the cheeks wet with tears wept at the wonder of a flawed masterwork, the eyes shining at the sheer bliss unfolding before them. Until then...

"Moriarty" out.

Readers Talkback
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  • Sept. 13, 2000, 9:54 a.m. CST

    C. C. Rules!

    by Kentucky Colonel

    I've known this since Fast Times and Say Anything. He can play with my emotions in a way Spielburg NEVER could. I am creaming on myself to see this movie. Is it Friday yet? PS- Thanks for the reminder that Bill Hicks is still alive and well in the collective conciousness. I really miss that guy!

  • Sept. 13, 2000, 10:08 a.m. CST

    This movie better make some fuckin' money, because it deserves a

    by Lenny Nero

    'Nuff said.

  • Sept. 13, 2000, 10:39 a.m. CST


    by CosDashit

    I'm sure almost famous will be a great movie, I want to see it too. But Harry, those animations on the site have got to go. At first they were cute; now they are disgusting; an offense to my young eyes. Harry as Mena Suvari? Harry in a bikini? YUCK! I don't wanna see that!

  • Sept. 13, 2000, 11:17 a.m. CST

    That Harry animation is a Cartuna repeat

    by *veers*

    I want my money back.

  • Sept. 13, 2000, 11:57 a.m. CST

    The longer cut of The Abyss is just a longer version of the same

    by Batutta

    Both versions of The Abyss are disappointing, the longer versions of Aliens and T2 suck too. Now Spielberg is gonna go muck around with E.T., a perfect film already. When will director's stop the insanity!!! I pray Friedkin doesn't fuck up Exorcist as well!

  • Sept. 13, 2000, 12:25 p.m. CST

    Lemme say sumpin' all quick an' shit...

    by darthexcelsior

    Ay, ay,...when all y'all gonna give props to "Backstage"? You reviewin' all this hippie shit...I ain' tryin' ta hear dat. Shit, at least give a shout out for "Turn It Up!" A'ight, late...

  • Sept. 13, 2000, 12:27 p.m. CST

    Kudos to you Moriarty

    by CyclopticJackass

    Wow. You know something Moriarty, you may just be the best reviewer out there. And I'm not just referring to the fact that you obviously write well. Not at all in a technical fashion like so many reviewers these days, but you relate the experience to us by showing us the way that it affected you personally. But you also manage to do it objectively. Even when you could almost feel how hard it must have been for you to say anything bad about this movie, admit any flaws in the cinematic experience, you did for the sake of the review and the reviewer. So kudos to you Moriarty, I wish we heard from you more often.

  • Sept. 13, 2000, 1 p.m. CST


    by Psyclops

    This film has been bestowed upon us from the heavens in a golden platter for all of us mortals to enjoy. It is a brief glimpse at GOD himself. The reason it has been cut down is that any viewing above the two hour limit would cause a mortal human body to disintegrate beyond comprehension. As long as ALMOST FAMOUS is playing in theaters across the globe, it is as close to having Jesus Christ walking the earth as anyone will possibly get. Actually, all sarcasm aside, I really want to see this movie. I hope its as great a film as everyone seems to be saying it is.

  • Now, putting all that disgust aside - I havent seen Almost Famous, but I've been thinking this could be the true to life portrait of the 70's Rock scene the way Boogie Nights was to the porn industry (well, not THAT authentic but close enough). I guess it won't be long until films paying wistful tributes to late 80's - early 90's pop culture start popping up too.

  • Sept. 13, 2000, 1:33 p.m. CST

    My mom thinks I'm cool...

    by MattHat121

    Simpsons reference...couldn't resist.

  • Sept. 13, 2000, 1:39 p.m. CST

    DVD plea

    by r_dimitri22

    Please release Almost Famous and Untitled as one product. Branching is a wonderful thing.

  • Sept. 13, 2000, 1:43 p.m. CST

    That Almost Famous movie quote that is supposedly so wonderful..

    by r_dimitri22

    I honestly don't get it. Does that mean I'm too cool? Or am I just so uncool that I don't recognize valuable currency when I see it? Or am I so *very* uncool that as a result I don't even have any uncool people for sharing this so-called currency?

  • Sept. 13, 2000, 2:48 p.m. CST

    Let's talk about the REAL reason to see this movie: Anna Paquin

    by Lance Rock

    My lord, she is unbearably cute. Also, Harry's cartoon breasts are the sickest things I've seen in a while.

  • Sept. 13, 2000, 3:27 p.m. CST

    The Harry cartoon is bit gross...

    by TedSallis

  • Sept. 13, 2000, 4:29 p.m. CST

    See the movie first

    by Jedi Clampett

    Moriarty's disappointment with AF the film vs, AF the script (or untitled if you prefer) points out the main problem with sites like AICN. How many times have we heard someone say how "The movie was a letdown after having read the book?" I think we all have "That need to know" chip in our brains that makes us want to find out about a movie before it comes out. But the inevitable side effect is that we don't experience it for the first time ever, because having read the script, we have a preconceived vision of the movie in our heads that can never match the actual film. Having seen the film, but not having read the script, I found AF to be classic CC. I loved it. Screw untitled, AF rocks.

  • Sept. 13, 2000, 4:36 p.m. CST

    Attention Dreamworks: Here's a Plan...

    by Lazarus Long

    Why not wait until Almost Famous starts raking in the dough from the good word of mouth, and THEN release the director's cut in theatres? Pick a bunch of selected major-market cities, and release a couple prints to each area. Most people WON'T see it again, but many will, and they should turn a profit on these new prints just from the repeat business they would normally be getting anyway! The ads could say: "You loved Almost see it with the originally intended extra 40 minutes!" Has this even been tried before? It's better than waiting 20 years for an anniversary re-release. Why wait 'til the DVD comes out if it's that good? And another question, couldn't they have comprimised? Why didn't they just edit it down to 2:15 or 2:20? That's not box office poison...

  • Sept. 13, 2000, 4:36 p.m. CST

    Harry's boobs

    by Jedi Clampett

    Regarding the bouncing Harry animation... The snap back effect of his breasts is consistant with that of silicon augmentation... Hmm? And that thong looks like it's stretched beyond all resonable limits. Watch out! If it breaks someone's going to lose an eye.

  • Sept. 13, 2000, 6:29 p.m. CST

    This is one of the best movies this year.

    by EL Duderino

    Please don't let this one pass you by whenever it is released in theaters. This was one of the greatest screenings I have ever been to, and a movie that I will not forget. There are movies that have won Oscars in the past that, while they were definately good movies, were not memorable. If I could think of any, I'd write them down (closest thing I have in my head right now is MIDNIGHT COWBOY, but there were more out there that were more forgettable). Please see this movie.

  • Sept. 13, 2000, 11:08 p.m. CST

    Almost Fell Asleep reading mOraity's ramBLINGS!

    by GEEKBASHER 3.0

    zzzzzzzzzzzzz...Oh yeah, great flick, go see it...Kate Hudson rocked, good screenplay, good music.....Ok, that was my review...Fucking Moriaty's was like Torture! I like reading his bad reviews better! But hey, thats just me....cuz when he likes something, HE REALLY CREAMS HIS WEENY!

  • Sept. 15, 2000, 1:55 a.m. CST

    Batutta... what the hell are you talking about?


    "Both versions of The Abyss are disappointing, the longer versions of Aliens and T2 suck too." No WAY, man! Come on. I don't like getting into the typical "this sucks, that sucks, you suck" talkback mode, but HOW can you say the SE of the Abyss sucked??? For me, watching that cut took the movie from being a really good, middle-of-the-day-on-summer-vacation kind of flick to being in my top three of all time! Plus that, Aliens is another favorite of mine, whichever version. I was really about to get my feathers ruffled here until I read: "Now Spielberg is gonna go muck around with E.T., a perfect film already...." I just don't get it, man. ET was... okay... but not even on a par with Abyss, IMNSHO. It's obvious we don't share the same taste in films, I guess. To each their own. But I'm just thinking if you liked ET a lot, you must have a heart and, it would seem, not have the snob's mentality against mainstream movies... so how can you be so not for the Abyss?? Oh, and just to be on topic, y'all... I CAN'T WAIT TO SEE ALMOST FAMOUS!!!! And I'm spectacularly pleased to see so many people backing this movie and supporting it. It seems like this is a sure-fire word of mouth film, almost at "Titanic" proportions.... please pardon the pun. Lightstormer OUT ( trout.)

  • Sept. 15, 2000, 11:50 p.m. CST

    The Abyss is a half-ass Close Encounters wannabe.

    by Batutta

    The first half is a gripping thriller, the second really subpar sci-fi (and "the wave" doesn't help, or the "can't we all just get along" message). The original cut of Aliens is a perfect masterpiece. The Special Edition is like a beautiful woman with zits on her face. The extra scenes were cut for a reason, either because they're redundant or just plain bad (Hicks "Don't be gone long, Ellen.", ugh). Ditto for Terminator 2, a less perfect masterpiece but even less so with the Special Edition scenes. Cameron has always had a propensity for unrefined schmaltz, which he capitalized on full bore with Titanic, and most of the rightly cut scenes from his earlier movies display this. And E.T. is not just okay, it's a glorious work of art. The difference between Spielberg and Cameron -- Spielberg is a poet, Cameron a mechanic.

  • Sept. 25, 2000, 1:46 p.m. CST

    The same

    by Samantha25

    I am guilty of the same thing here. I read scripts before the movies come out, and it frequently screws the movie. I read the script for dogma before watching a bootleg copy a friend got from somewhere and the script was amazing, I was really looking forward to the movie, and the movie was disappointing, the editing sucked, and it seemed like the only reason half the movie made sense was because I had read the script. So I symphatize with Moriarty on this point. I also want to say I would love a three hour movie if it was good, I sat through Titanic, I think I can take 3 hours of something amazing. I for one am all for 3 hours of Cameron Crowe magic!!