[box cover]

Ragtime

Milos Forman's 1981 adaptation of E.L. Doctorow's sprawling novel is yet another filmmaking casualty of ambition over substance. It's the sort of project that, no doubt, was engineered by studio executives with visions of Oscars dancing in their heads: the sort of epic period piece that revels in the romantic trappings of history, but that also tackles still-relevant social issues in sensational fashion. Take a best-selling novel with those ingredients, attach an award-winning director, and what can you lose? Without a coherent vision for the movie, a lot. Ragtime presumes to weave together a handful of overlapping stories — with a little bit of fact and a lot of fiction — in and around New York City during the second decade of 20th Century, just prior to the outbreak of The Great War. The film begins with the murder of the famous, philandering architect Stanford White (a cameo by Norman Mailer) by the enraged husband of dimwitted model Evelyn Nesbit (Elizabeth McGovern). When her husband is committed to an asylum for the crime, Evelyn catches the eye of an unstable fireworks designer (Brad Dourif), but his vain, desperate pursuit of the fickle twit soon runs him afoul of his boss and brother-in-law (James Olson), a strict and devout taskmaster already vexed by his strong-willed wife (Mary Steenburgen) and her insistence on caring for a black baby abandoned on their property. The baby's inarticulate mother, Sarah (Debbie Allen), is quickly discovered, and she too is invited into the wealthy family's care. And when the father of the child, charming and intelligent piano player Coalhouse Walker Jr. (Howard E. Rollins Jr.), emerges to marry Sarah after clinching a well-paying job with a first-rate night club band, it verges on an idyllic picture of Gilded Age success. It's all unraveled, however, when a racist fireman (Kenneth McMillan) takes exception to Coalhouse's apparent success and harasses and humiliates the proud, self-made man with a vile act of vandalism. Coalhouse turns to the legal system for modest redress, but is deflected at every turn by indifferent bureaucrats and advised by his confidants to accept the disrespect and move on. Instead, Coalhouse launches a terrorist campaign against firehouses, resulting in a tense stand-off with police commissioner Rheinlander Waldo (James Cagney, in his last screen role). Tangentially connected is the story of a cuckolded Yiddishe artist (Mandy Patinkin) who rebounds as a celebrated director of silent films. That's a lot of material, but neither Forman nor screenwriter Michael Weller (who previously did a terrific job adapting the disjointed stage musical Hair for Forman's far superior film version) is able to tie it together satisfactorily. Much of the first 90 minutes is aimless, and when Coalhouse's crusade begins, the film narrows considerably (Forman admits in the on-disc commentary that this storyline motivated his directing of the film). Many of the sub-plots are left dangling, if not mere ciphers, and all of them lack the resonance to fulfill the movie's intended scale. While Randy Newman's score is wonderful and evocative of the time, the rest of the production lacks quality, presenting the period as flat and ordinary, lacking the encapsulating feel for or vision of the era that great period pictures strive for. Even though Cagney's swan song earned top billing (his performance is unremarkable, and yet his presence still carries substantial impact), Rollins gives the stand-out performance. It should've made him a much bigger star than it did (that he lost out on the Golden Globe award that year for "New Star of the Year in a Motion Picture" to Pia Zadora, of all people, was perhaps evidence of a curse; Rollins died in 1996). Look for Pat O'Brien, Donald O'Connor, Samuel L. Jackson, Jeff Daniels, John Ratzenberger, and Fran Drescher in bit parts, plus (supposedly) Forman's pal Jack Nicholson in an easy-to-miss cameo. Paramount presents Ragtime in a good anamorphic transfer (2.35:1), even if the film is visually uninspired. The audio is available in the original mono (restored) and a Dolby Digital 5.1 remix. Forman and executive producer Michael Hausman discuss the film on a commentary track. Also included is a short retrospective featurette, plus a 10-minute deleted scene between Evelyn and activist Emma Goldman. Trailer, keep-case.
—Gregory P. Dorr



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