`Amadeus' still off-key

Movie Review

April 26, 2002|By Michael Sragow | Michael Sragow,SUN MOVIE CRITIC

SUN SCORE

** 1/2 (two and one-half stars)

With the addition of 20 extra minutes in its new "director's cut," Amadeus still ought to be called Salieri. It's not just that the dramatic balance slants toward the mediocre yet prosperous and acclaimed composer Salieri (F. Murray Abraham) rather than the idiot savant-like genius Mozart (Tom Hulce).

And it's not just that Abraham is tremendous in his role while Hulce is flatly buffoonish in his. It's that the moviemaking itself has a Salieri-like pedantry and obviousness.

The director of Amadeus, Milos Forman, and his collaborators beat out David Lean and his team on A Passage to India for the 1984 Academy Awards, winning eight in all, including best director, picture and actor (for Abraham). What's sardonically ironic is that Amadeus has the heavy hand, leaden pacing and self-conscious glossiness of Lean's worst work, Ryan's Daughter - exactly what A Passage to India leapt beyond.

Nonetheless, Forman, like Lean, does have the craftsman-impresario's gift for hurtling an audience into a juicy conflict - the jealousy that results from Salieri's adoration of Mozart the composer and abhorrence of Mozart the man, and his resulting crusade to keep Mozart from earning a living, or living.

And again like Lean, Forman frames it in a seductive, picturesque setting. Prague makes a voluptuous stand-in for opulent 18th-century Vienna. With Mozart's greatest hits supplying passion and Twyla Tharp's staging of Mozart's and Salieri's operas periodically igniting the imagination, Amadeus induces a semi-wakeful torpor that could be mistaken for awe or uplift.

As far as the new stuff goes, the Salieri material actually adds a shade or two to the drama, while the Mozart scenes merely provide the moviemakers and the abominable Hulce with one more extravagant display of the artist as victim. In the new Salieri interlude, the consummate musical politician makes a halfhearted stab at extorting sexual favors from Mozart's wife, Constanze (Elizabeth Berridge), in exchange for getting Mozart a teaching job. She does expose her breasts - enough to win this version a ridiculous R rating - but Salieri himself cuts their assignation short and decides against helping Mozart.

At this moment of naked reckoning, Salieri discovers that worldly manipulation of his rival won't soothe his aching envy for Mozart's talent. In the Constanze-Salieri sequence, the manuscripts she hands to Salieri prove her husband's gifts too well: No penciled-in second thoughts sully his flow of invention. Salieri is convinced that God has chosen this braying overgrown brat as his musical vessel. The new scene both solidifies Constanze's resentment of Salieri and strengthens his decision to declare war on God.

In the extra Mozart escapade, our master composer tries to teach the daughter of a philistine aristocrat (Kenneth MacMillan) who insists on including his dogs as part of the audience for the session. Mozart attempts to make his music heard over the hounds, then walks out in a huff. It's one more instance of our earthy, rebellious wunderkind staying true to his muse and being punished for it.

Although a performer like Roman Polanski might have brought his own multifaceted personality to Mozart when he played him on stage, the part as written pales before the bitter, discerning Salieri. And in the movie, Salieri wipes the marble floors with him. Abraham's Salieri marks one of the few times in film history when the layers of a performance equal the layers of its makeup. Apart from Jeffrey Jones' deft caricature of Emperor Josef as an empty uniform, Abraham provides the only subtlety in the whole extravaganza. He's cunningly understated when portraying Salieri's sweet tooth - and his hunger for fame as well as glory.

Hulce won the hearts of Hollywood (he was nominated for best actor, too): He got to represent the artist warring against the emperor's cultural bureaucracy at a time when committees had begun to overrun American moviemaking. But his performance veers between that of a clown with a painted smile and a clown with a painted pout. Except for the Mozart music and Tharp movements around the edges, Amadeus plays like a monument to mediocrity. The movie belongs to Salieri.

Amadeus

Starring F. Murray Abraham, Tom Hulce

Directed by Milos Forman

Rated R for one brief flash of nudity

Released by Warner Bros.

Running time 188 minutes

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