Sour Town

Photo: Demmie Todd/HBO; Illustration by Matt Owens

At the end of Empire Falls, the Pulitzer Prize–winning novel, a character about whom we have come to harbor negative feelings falls asleep in the afternoon sunlight and is swept away in the raging waters of a flash flood, with no chance of rescue by the time the body reaches the Knox River dam, although an emergency sandbag worker is witness to the “ghoulish” spectacle of “a red-mouthed, howling cat” crouched on the shoulders of the floating corpse. At the end of Empire Falls, the two-part, three-hour-plus television adaptation, we don’t see any of this. We get instead a wet cat in a gazebo.

Since Richard Russo wrote both the book and the teleplay, it’s a stretch to think that market forces somehow conspired to dulcify his raw material. In fact, all of the TV version of Empire Falls is a bit too decorous, stately, measured, and slow, like a parade of stringed instruments. Not that these stringed instruments aren’t extraordinary. (And I should admit a personal reservation: I was a member of the fiction jury the year Empire Falls won its Pulitzer. I hoped and expected Jonathan Franzen’s The Corrections to win, but the Columbia trustees went for honorable uplift rather than the magical properties of language, which can act as an acid solution and a cloud chamber, where salts form and atoms split. So you should take my criticisms of this worthy movie with a grain of salt and a sour grape.)

Imagine, in a depressed mill town in laconic Maine, the likes of Ed Harris as Miles Roby, stuck in indentured servitude, managing a diner; Helen Hunt as his ex-wife, Janine, on a starvation diet for affection; Paul Newman as his alcoholic father, Max, who absconds to Key West with money stolen from a church; Robin Wright Penn as the bygone mother little Miles grew up with, until she discovered that adultery causes cancer; Aidan Quinn as brother David, in short-order love with Theresa Russell’s kitchen maid; Joanne Woodward as Francine Whiting in her big white house, jerking everyone else’s strings as though Empire Falls were her feudal fief; Philip Seymour Hoffman as C. B. Whiting, who came back from Mexico to shoot himself in the head; Estelle Parsons behind a bar, Kate Burton on crutches, Jeffrey DeMunn as a journalist, William Fichtner in a patrol car, and Dennis Farina running a health club, gobbling Viagra, and lying about his age.

Add a remarkably persuasive Danielle Panabaker as Tick—the teenage daughter of Harris and Hunt, who must live through not only her father’s sadness and her mother’s hysteria but also a horrific high-school shooting—and you have a cast that could sail to great and glorious Byzantium. The director, Fred Schepisi, is as respectful of Russo’s intentions as are the executive producers, who include Paul Newman. So sometimes the slow motion works, as in the painful scenes with Harris and Fichtner, where a small-town class system shows up in miniature, based not on who makes more money but on who went away to college and who didn’t. And in sepia flashbacks to the affair between Penn and Hoffman, while a little-boy Miles tries not to notice. And in a father-daughter interval on Martha’s Vineyard, where traumatic emotions get a genuine parenthesis in which to recover.

Considering how hyperbolic most TV movies have become, it may seem churlish to complain about understatement, even if the understating verges on complacency. But we have met this Newman before, if not quite as seedy a public nuisance, in Nobody’s Fool. Woodward isn’t allowed a change of gear from power-mad manipulative. Harris spends too much time looking out his diner window, as if for soul food; he could use some Jackson Pollock. Hunt, whose range never fails to astonish, is all revved up with no place to go. On our way past abandoned factories to hardscrabble grace, not once but at least three times too often we are hit in the head with the blunt symbolism of church, ladder, vertigo, and steeple. Cajoled through this landscape by a Thornton Wilder Our Town voice-over, we are too conscious of a series of well-bred calculations and well-done set pieces, as if Maine had been Merchant Ivory’d.

  HBO’s made-for-TV movies are among the most high-prestige projects around: Empire Falls and, before that, The Life and Death of Peter Sellers and Normal attracted top talent (if not universal raves), and Angels in America was arguably 2003’s most star-studded and best-reviewed film. All of which might explain why HBO’s going Hollywood, announcing a deal with New Line to co-produce theatrical releases. The new company will focus on quality indies with top-drawer stars (a Nicole Kidman film is on the slate), which has led to speculation that HBO’s hope is to grab market share from a Weinstein-less Miramax.  

Empire Falls
Directed by Fred Schepisi.
HBO. Premieres Saturday, May 28, 9 P.M.

Sour Town