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The Magnificent Ambersons

The first thing to be said about the A&E channel's otherwise groundbreaking 150-minute The Magnificent Ambersons (2002) is that it isn't very good. Basically, it looks like what it is: a TV movie, with a preponderance of close-ups, soft-focused shots, and a general feeling of having been made in Canada on videotape, although in fact Ireland stood in for the turn of the century Indiana of Booth Tarkington's source novel. That one can spend $16 million and get something as bad looking as this suggests that big movie budgets can't buy what they used to. The acting is erratic as well. The otherwise estimable Bruce Greenwood (John Kennedy in Thirteen Days) is fine but a little uncharismatic for the role of Eugene Morgan, the entrepreneurial car manufacturer. Madeleine Stowe as Isabel, the love of Morgan's life but married to another, is game but too healthy looking and not patrician enough for the part. James Cromwell, as the Amberson patriarch, does not present a commanding, or later a nuanced, self-reflective figure. Jennifer Tilly as Fanny, Isabel's sister-in-law, struggles to counter her usual cupie-doll voice by wearing little wire glasses, but tends to overact, which she may have thought was the essence of her fragile character. And Gretchen Mol, as Eugene's daughter, is easy on the eyes but wispy. Also contributing to the TV-movie quality is William Hootkins as uncle George Amberson, the wastrel of the family, whose fruity line readings are invariably phony. But worst of all is Jonathan Rhys Meyers (Velvet Goldmine) as George Minafer, Isabel's son and the tragic figure of the piece, with a performance that drains all credibility. Ambersons tells the story of young George, who was a rather unpleasant and spoiled kid who grows up to be an even more unpleasant trust-fund baby with an unnatural attraction to his mother Isabel, whom he thwarts from getting together with Eugene after her husband dies. As the family crumbles around him, young George only begins to soften near the end after a near-fatal (and ever so "ironic") car accident — though its hard to tell, given that Meyers fails to alter his character's demeanor. To state the obvious, this dull travesty is a remake of Orson Welles's film version of Tarkinton's novel The Magnificent Ambersons, released in 1942 and famously altered and trimmed by RKO in Welles's absence (the full story can be found in the numerous bios of Welles and in two books about Ambersons itself). Like RKO, these new filmmakers seemed not to know what they were doing either. The producers claim that their film is based on Welles's original script, but it lacks such things as Welles's delightful, narrated opening montage sequence. The remake also has several confusing temporal shifts, suggesting that some uncredited hacks did the usual re-writing. Director Alfonso Arau, who made the equally mushy Like Water for Chocolate, admitted an antipathy to the source film in a must-read Vanity Fair article in January 2002. Arau also admitted that he pumped up the incest theme, perhaps under the influence of scholar Robert Carringer, who posits that Welles had "completion anxiety" over the film because of its parallels to his own life that he wished not to face (a theory belied by Welles's extensive memos and telegrams giving extensive instructions on the film's editing). Actress Madeleine Stowe, perhaps the only clear-headed participant of this debacle, was reported to have said that "It breaks my heart that we didn't do the material justice." A&E's DVD offers an adequate full-frame transfer (1.33:1) from a soft-looking print. Audio is an equally adequate Dolby 2.0 Surround. Extras consist of a 21-minute "making-of" featurette, and bios of three cast members plus Orson Welles. Keep-case.
—D. K. Holm

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