Saturday, August 4, 2012

Almost Famous Is Almost Decent . . . Almost, But Not Quite

The Good: Moments of humor, Moments of decent directing, One or two characters
The Bad: Overall pacing, General mood, Pointless characters, Most of the movie
The Basics: When William Miller is offered the opportunity of a lifetime to write for Rolling Stone, he takes it and embarks on a pointless cross-country trip with the group Stillwater.

Every now and then, there is a film that has a pretty tremendous cast, but the movie fails to utilize the actors in such a way as to produce a great movie. In such circumstances, I usually blame the director and/or the writer. In the case of Almost Famous, which stars such usually impressive talents as Jason Lee, Frances McDormand, Anna Paquin, Faruza Balk, and Phillip Seymour Hoffman, the blame for the "eh" feeling I left the movie with would have to go to writer/director Cameron Crowe.

Almost Famous follows 15 year-old William Miller, boy genius, on the road with the band Stillwater, as the youth attempts to get an interview with the band for Rolling Stone. Alas, William's many attempts to complete the assignment are foiled by the guitarist of Stillwater, Russell Hammond, who - despite being the most sympathetic and trusting of William - fails to grant the boy an actual interview. What follows, then, is William witlessly accompanying the band around the country as it slowly gains in popularity and William becomes more and more drawn to Russell's groupie in all but name, Penny Lane.

First, what goes right? You know how when The Blair Witch Project (reviewed here!) came out, there were loads of people who believed (snicker, snicker) that the movie was an actual documentary? You know, the people who believed the story in the movie actually was a found video showing three people getting lost and disappearing in the woods? Well, Almost Famous does something very right and that is creating the mystique of Stillwater. Heck, even the name sounds like a real '70s band! But the two most visible members of the band, Jason Lee (as Jeff Bebe) and Billy Crudup (as Russell) act like rock stars in the movie with such fluidity that when the band name Stillwater is dropped alongside such recognizable names as Black Sabbath, David Bowie and Led Zeppelin, it's easy for the viewer to eat it up.

But no, there is no band Stillwater. Or there was not a band named Stillwater in the '70s that was opening for Black Sabbath. And, for the record, we seriously doubt there is a Blair Witch.

So, the performances of Jason Lee and Billy Crudup are notable not because they seem to be acting like Generic Rock Stars on their way up, but rather they have the impression of being very real, very specific individuals which is a credit both to their performances and to the writing of their characters. I'm crediting their performances slightly higher because outside of the two of them, the only character that truly pops is Elaine Miller, William's mother. She is portrayed as humorless, intelligent, and protective by Frances McDormand, who rises easily and effectively to the challenge.

So, that's three performances on the plus side. Then there's the rest. Patrick Fugit might be a wonderful actor, he certainly has the subtle facial expressions that could make him one. Perhaps why I am unable to judge is because Fugit is playing a subtle, low-key character. William Miller is a pretty unassuming, unthreatening and actually unmemorable kind of guy. How does one play that and make the character interesting? It's hard. I'm not sure Fugit is successful here. In the film's lone moment of William bursting out of anonymous obscurity to win his way backstage with Stillwater, Fugit sells the audience on William's brilliance at adapting, if not his sudden extroversion. His final outburst in the movie, near the end of the film, fails to sell at all. And in between, we are left wondering why such a shy, dedicated young man with such potential attracts Penny Lane and can't manage to get a statement from Russell.

Similarly, we never see a real strong motivation for Penny Lane, who is perhaps the iconic image associated with Almost Famous. Lane follows Stillwater around and is mistress to Russell, though she abhors the term "groupie" and has organized her fellow "band aides" into a workforce that will not put out, only perform oral sex. She, however, breaks this code. Lane is a somewhat nonsensical character that is very much a "type" without being much of an individual. Ironically, Lane is loosely based on someone in reality according to the closing credits of the film.

In fact, none of the characters truly pop. Lane is a giant question mark for purpose, William is brilliant and motivated but only so far, Russell and Jeff resist acting on one of the biggest potential opportunities for their band by not cooperating with William, and the other "band aides" are equally unexplained as Penny. Lester Bangs, who has some of the film's most memorable lines and a decent position in the film is not explored enough to even be considered having depth.

What kills Almost Famous for me is the pace. It's one thing to have murky characters one does not quite understand. It's one thing to have actors put in parts that underuse their talents (poor Anna Paquin, in this case!). It's an entirely different thing to have wonderful actors playing characters of uncertain motivation doing almost nothing. That's what happens in Almost Famous. Almost nothing happens. The protagonist is dragged around the country for almost an hour and a half (the first half hour of the movie is quite engaging) and it feels like forever. Seriously. I found myself looking at the DVD clock counting off the seconds more frequently in this film than in any I have seen in recent memory. That's a sure sign of poor pacing.

This movie might be nostalgic for people who were into the early-70s Rock and Roll scene, but for me it was a slow, pointless march of people who made little sense. Save the William's mother, who makes sense, but ultimately is a punchline.

For other works with Billy Crudup, be sure to check out my reviews of:
Mission: Impossible III
Big Fish
Princess Mononoke


For other film reviews, be sure to check out my Movie Review Index Page for an organized listing!

© 2012, 2006 W.L. Swarts. May not be reprinted without permission.
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