A&E's not so `Magnificent Ambersons'

Preview: Film remake from A&E fails to deliver what flawed, but classic, original had.

January 12, 2002|By Chris Kaltenbach | Chris Kaltenbach,SUN MOVIE CRITIC

The makers of The Magnificent Ambersons think they're doing movie lovers a favor, that they're righting a longstanding cinematic wrong. They're not.

Instead, they've given us a lifeless remake of a 50-year-old film, featuring awful performances, pedestrian direction and just enough minor virtues to leave viewers wondering what might have been.

Actually, it's in that area of unrealized potential that tomorrow's film most closely resembles its illustrious predecessor. In 1942, Orson Welles was preparing a follow-up to Citizen Kane, and chose The Magnificent Ambersons, a Pulitzer Prize-winning novel by Booth Tarkington about a turn-of-the-century Indiana family whose fortunes declined as new technology took hold. Welles handed RKO studios a film more than two hours long, then left the country.

When audiences laughed derisively at previews, nervous executives demanded the film be edited. Welles trimmed it considerably, but at the behest of the studio, an editor whittled the film to less than 90 minutes, re-arranged scenes and tacked on a happy ending that Welles never imagined. Even so, the film is regarded as a classic, and one can only wonder what Welles' original cut looked like.

The Magnificent Ambersons 2002 (premiering at 8 p.m. tomorrow on A&E) attempts to redress that wrong by adhering to Welles' original script.

But shooting a Welles film without having Welles himself do the shooting is like draping a bearskin over a plastic skeleton and insisting it's the genuine beast. It's interesting to hear the additional dialogue and watch how Welles intended his film to play out, but Mexican director Alfonse Arau (Like Water for Chocolate) is no Welles and fails to bring his own vision to the script.

Young George Amberson Minafer (Jonathan Rhys Meyers) is the spoiled scion of a wealthy family who's convinced the world exists to serve him. His overly protective mother, Isabel Amberson Minafer (Madeleine Stowe), is a little too fond of her only child.

Recently widowed, Isabel has recaptured the eye of a former suitor, Eugene Morgan (Bruce Greenwood), an inventor whose latest project is a horseless carriage that draws stares from the curious - and scoffs from George, who views Eugene as beneath contempt as a member of the working class. Ironically, however, George falls in love with Eugene's beautiful daughter, Lucy (Gretchen Mol).

That's certainly a tangled-enough web, and wonderful stories have been built upon much less. But Tarkington sets his tale at a time when American society was changing drastically and speeding up. Those unable to keep pace - like, for instance, George Minafer - were becoming anachronisms.

Unfortunately, that three-paragraph plot summary contains about as much life as tomorrow's film. Fortunately, reading it does not require you to sit through performances by Rhys Myers or Jennifer Tilly (as George's conniving Aunt Fanny.) Both emote boundlessly, shamelessly and endlessly. He comes across as so obnoxious, it's a wonder anyone - especially someone as seemingly together as Lucy - can tolerate, much less fall in love with him. And Tilly's trademark breathless delivery is woefully out of place.

Even Greenwood and Stowe, wonderful actors both, routinely do much better work than this. Greenwood, especially, is wasted.

There's nothing at all magnificent about this Magnificent Ambersons, a film that proves that even the best intentions aren't enough without creativity behind them.

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