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Howard Rosenberg TELEVISION

Remake Is Rich if Unrestrained

January 11, 2002|Howard Rosenberg

"The Magnificent Ambersons," like the rich and influential Indiana family it chronicles from the 1880s to the early 20th century, is magnificent irregularly. A&E's great-looking but often overcooked new rendition of Booth Tarkington's 1918 novel is noteworthy partly because of the mythic nature of its predecessor, the "Magnificent Ambersons" movie that Orson Welles chose to make after his boy-wonderdom epic, "Citizen Kane."

Although it has champions, mainly cinephiles drawn to its innovative photography and sound, Welles' "Ambersons" is a pretty horrid film, much less a marvel than a mishmash, its young protagonist's implied Oedipus complex and other crucial plot elements having been exorcised in the editing room. Without first reading the novel, following its disjointed narrative--capped by a grafted-on ending that's almost giddy--becomes nearly impossible.

Whether the director or the studio, RKO, is to blame for this debacle is an ongoing debate that others will have to address, along with the mystery surrounding the 44 minutes of footage carved from the Welles original to sweat it down to the undernourished 88 minutes that was delivered to movie houses 60 years ago. That re-cut version remains available today on video.

Shot in Ireland, with turn-of-the-century Indianapolis being replicated in northern Dublin, this new "Ambersons" comes in at 139 minutes (without commercials), its $16-million budget stunningly visible right away in an opening gala in the Amberson mansion where the town's silk hats and white-gloved ladies have gathered in 1904 for a Christmas ball to honor snotty young George Amberson (Jonathan Rhys Meyers), who is home on break from college.

This beautifully filmed waltz of Ambersonian elegance glides gaily in its own cloistered universe of privilege and decadence. So it makes sense that George's mother, Isabel Amberson Minafer (Madeleine Stowe), and self-made automobile mogul Eugene Morgan (Bruce Greenwood) would be followed by servants with umbrellas to protect them from gently falling snow as they dance just outside the ballroom in a lingering moment of tender affection.

Actually, it's a tragic ballet of sorts, given the unhappiness ahead for them thanks to George, whose destructive obsession with his widowed mother will ultimately sever her from Eugene and abort their romance. All the while, he continues to aggressively pursue Eugene's daughter, Lucy (Gretchen Mol).

In most ways, this "Ambersons" is not only faithful to the novel, which earned Tarkington the first of two Pulitzer Prizes, but also soars above the 1942 film that had Tim Holt as George, Dolores Costello as Isabel, Joseph Cotten as Eugene and Anne Baxter as Lucy.

Working from Welles' original shooting script, director Alfonso Arau ("Like Water for Chocolate") at least delivers a story that one can follow, as George lives his young life selfishly and cruelly, and the Ambersons ultimately topple from Midwestern aristocracy all the way to the working class when eclipsed by the changing world around them.

If staging were all that mattered, this grandly mounted effort would be an unqualified success, even though a couple of early outdoor scenes are marred by cheesy rear and side projection shots that belie the movie's ample budget.

Arau does, at key times, achieve the perfect pitch, as with the scene when George stuns Eugene by denying him entry to the Amberson mansion, where Isabel is waiting for him. After the door is slammed in his face, a stunned and puzzled Eugene is visible through the frosted glass, pausing briefly before moving off. Moments later, Arau shoots George moving ominously past a doorway like a dark shadow, cigarette between his lips, eyes left on his mother in the next room where she awaits Eugene, unaware he's been turned away.

Arau gets especially nice performances here from Stowe, Greenwood, William Hootkins as Georgie's genial Uncle George and James Cromwell as his grandfather, family patriarch Major Amberson.

Too frequently, though, Arau chooses wild extravagance over nuance, with Meyers, in the story's pivotal role, being allowed to burn his way through "Ambersons" like a laser.

If Holt's George was more sympathetic and benign than the adult brat Tarkington created, Meyers' is too twitchy, volcanic and flipped-out. More than just nasty, spoiled, pompous and tightly wound, he appears psychotic, if not flat-out deranged in his black suits, with Arau repeatedly going to his crazed eyes through those steel-rimmed spectacles that add to his severity.

There's too much surface in him, too little held back. George's groans in the novel become shouts in this movie, the "passion in his face" more like the out-of-control frothing one finds in a madman, making his future self-blame and partial mea culpa all the more unbelievable.

In addition, Irishman Meyers wears some of Tarkington's lines like a truss, specifically when spitting out "See here" or "Look here" to begin a sentence.

At least he looks the part. The movie's most exotic casting has Jennifer Tilly as Georgie's "spinster" Aunt Fanny, a whimpering eccentric who was played frantically by Agnes Moorehead in the Welles movie. Some of their scenes together are memorably hysterical and frenzied, notably one in which she angrily pelts him with dishes and they wrestle on a table, after which he gets her in a headlock.

"The Magnificent Ambersons" has its good moments, but this absurd one is a TV first: two of the Three Stooges meeting Booth Tarkington.

"The Magnificent Ambersons" airs Sunday at 8 p.m. on A&E. The network has rated it TV-PG (may be unsuitable for young viewers).

Howard Rosenberg's column appears Mondays and Fridays. He can be contacted via e-mail at howard.rosenberg@latimes.com.

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