One thing there's no shortage of in this country is monitoring. Jesse Helms's people monitor painters and photographers for homoerotic imagery or anti-Christian iconography. School boards monitor classic books for obscenity. There are even quasi-religious organizations out there that can tell you how many times Joe Pesci uttered variations on the word fuck in GoodFellas, how many glimpses of Madonna's nipples one can catch in Body of Evidence, and how many Colombians Tony Montana waxed in Scarface. After all, good Christian parents need to know whether to send their kids to the local multiplex to be inundated with sex and violence, or just tell to them to stay home and watch it on TV.
But I'm intrigued by this monitoring concept. I think it might have wider application. For example, wouldn't it be great if there were a government agency or a grassroots, concerned-parents-type organization to track the really offensive stuff -- stereotypical characters, hackneyed story lines, florid dialogue -- that plagues so many of today's movies and rots the minds of our impressionable youth?
If there were such an outfit, a frighteningly lame movie such as Legends of the Fall would be guilty of so many violations it would register off the scale. A failed attempt to translate Jim Harrison's sweeping turn-of-the-century yarn into motion picture epic, Legends falls flat on its pretty-but-vacuous face. Even most TV soap operas are freer of cliche than this overwrought melodrama.
Of course nobody I've talked to is really concerned with Legends's originality. They want to know how Hollywood's current soulful poster boy fares. For those readers I offer this capsule summary: Brad Pitt scruffy/Brad Pitt sultry/Brad Pitt in hand-to-hand combat with a grizzly bear/Brad Pitt riding off on horseback/Brad Pitt grieving/Brad Pitt as returning war hero/Brad Pitt naked/Brad Pitt suffering post-traumatic-stress syndrome/Brad Pitt crying/Brad Pitt riding off on horseback/Brad Pitt shirtless in a mountain stream/Brad Pitt in New Guinea (!)/Brad Pitt as returning adventurer/Brad Pitt paternal/Brad Pitt sad/Brad Pitt really angry/Brad Pitt murderous/Brad Pitt conciliatory/Brad Pitt riding off on horseback/Brad Pitt in hand-to-hand combat with a grizzly bear.
For those who want more than two hours of Brad Pitt, the pickings are slim. Consider this cast of shopworn characters: Colonel Ludlow, the gruff-but-lovable father; his three headstrong sons (Alfred, the responsible one; Tristan, the wild one; and Samuel, the baby); One Stab, the loyal sidekick and token Indian mystic; and Susannah, the beautiful but delicate woman who taps a hidden reservoir of strength when she's with the man she loves.
The brothers are inseparable as children, but when Samuel meets Susannah at Harvard and takes her home to Montana, sibling love becomes sibling rivalry. World War I intervenes. Tragedies occur. Loss. Betrayal. The usual elements tear the family asunder. Tristan and Alfred go their separate ways, both seeking the approval of their father. One Stab narrates sporadically, imparting pearls of wisdom such as "Some people hear their inner voices with great clearness, and those people become... crazy," "Every warrior hopes a good death will find him, but Tristan couldn't wait. He went looking for his," and my personal favorite, "The old ones say when a man and an animal spill each other's blood, they become one."
By no means does the Indian have a monopoly on the corny dialogue. "I shall wait for you forever if need be," Susannah cries as Tristan gallops off into the mist. A few years later, Tristan returns to find her married to Alfred. "Forever turned out to be too long, Tristan," she explains.
Even the music is banal. I lost count of the number of times the strings swelled in that generic epic-Western fashion, or how often the musical score shifted abruptly to more primitive, exotic sounds to signify Tristan's animal personality emerging (as if the faraway look he got in his eyes wasn't enough of a giveaway).
Anthony Hopkins is so good he's almost believable in the early going, but he is grossly miscast as Colonel Ludlow, the career soldier who becomes so disgusted with his own government during the so-called Indian Wars that he packs up the family and lights out for Montana to, in One Stab's words, "lose the madness over the mountains." You can't help but wonder about the origin of Ludlow's English accent; the filmmakers try to cover it by making him a man of few words. Then, in the second act, Ludlow suffers a debilitating stroke. From Richard III to The Hunchback of Notre Dame to The Man Without a Face, male actors seem to relish the opportunity to play a character with a physical deformity; Hopkins hams it up mercilessly, squinting and contorting his face. He succeeds only in looking even more ridiculous than he did with Bugs Bunny teeth in The Road to Wellville. What starts out as respectable work degenerates into an embarrassing performance from an actor who appears so anxious not to be typecast in the aristocratic Howards End-Remains of the Day mold that he'll accept any other kind of role.
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Pitt is actually quite competent as the charismatic Tristan, even if the part is basically a variation on the character he played in -- River Runs Through It. I wouldn't want to be the actress who costars opposite him, though; with those bee-stung lips, those chiseled cheekbones, and that leonine golden mane, he's prettier than most of his female counterparts. Aidan Quinn, playing Alfred, the dandified city boy to Pitt's romantic primitive, is a pleasant surprise in a thankless role. A funny phenomenon occurs, however, when Hopkins, Pitt, and Quinn appear on-screen at once. They all have striking blue eyes. You can't resist comparing one set of peepers against another. If only Paul Newman were there to serve as the standard against which the others could be measured.
Screenwriters Susan Shilliday (an alumna of TV's thirtysomething) and Bill Wittliff (The Cowboy Way) have conspired with director Edward Zwick (co-creator of thirtysomething and director of another well-acted but ultimately unsatisfying epic, Glory) to turn Harrison's novella into something that resembles a pilot for a bad TV series A My Three Sons in a Little House on the Prairie. The events that occur in the celluloid Legends of the Fall feel random, and we are often left to fill in the blanks of various characters' motivations. Harrison's novel, by contrast, was a story of love and loss writ large; his prose resonated with the inevitability of fate where this screen adaption rings shrill and arbitrary. And dull.
The middle third moves so slowly you actually welcome the resumption of One Stab's solemn narration. "It was those who loved [Tristan] most who died young," the wise man intones. After sitting through Legends of the Fall, you'll wish you were one of them.