Combustible Celluloid
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With: Patrick Fugit, Billy Crudup, Kate Hudson, Jason Lee, Frances McDormand, Fairuza Balk, Noah Taylor, Zooey Deschanel, Jimmy Fallon, Anna Paquin, Bijou Phillips, Philip Seymour Hoffman
Written by: Cameron Crowe
Directed by: Cameron Crowe
MPAA Rating: R for language, drug content and brief nudity
Running Time: 122
Date: 09/08/2000

Almost Famous (2000)

2 1/2 Stars (out of 4)

Band on the Run

By Jeffrey M. Anderson

I can't ever recall seeing a movie that could be called an "autobiopic" before, afilmmaker making a fictional film about his own life. Director Cameron Crowe doeshave an interesting life, writing articles for Rolling Stone about bands like LedZeppelin and the Allman Brothers while still in his mid-teens. Yet, asentertaining as it is, Almost Famous suffers from a strange fakeness, a Hollywoodglossiness that almost bookmarks for us which events are real and which wereamalgamated for movie purposes.

In this movie, young Crowe is called "William" and is played by Patrick Fugit (and by Noah Taylor as a pre-teen). He gets bit by the rock 'n' roll bug when his sister runs away and leaves him her record collection. Soon, he has befriended the legendary rock critic Lester Bangs (beautifully played by Philip Seymour Hoffman) who gives him his first journalistic assignment. Before long, William joins the fictional band Stillwater on their cross-country tour, much to the chagrin of his conservative mother (a wonderful Frances McDormand). He begins making friends with band members Jason Lee and Billy Crudup, and its groupies (called "band-aids") Fairuza Balk, Anna Paquin, and Kate Hudson as Penny Lane.

What follows is a strange mixture of genuine moments and fake movie scenes. When William first meets Stillwater and sees them perform, his excitement is palpable and the time period feels right. Many of the band scenes are funny and well done, thanks to the top-notch performances of Crudup and Lee. Even better are McDormand's scenes (such as a phone conversation with Crudup) and Hoffman's scenes (all of them--why couldn't this have been a movie about Lester Bangs?).

Where the movie falls is, sadly, in its main character William. While young Fugit does the best he can, the character is hardly engaging. He's only a passive observer to the mixed-up rock 'n' roll world. If the movie were about writing and journalism, that would have been one thing, but William is rarely seen even holding so much as a pencil. The twists and turns his life takes seem forced into the story, such as his so-called romance with Penny Lane and Rolling Stone initially rejecting his story. In all likelihood, some of these events did not happen. I mean, Crowe was there and I wasn't, but somehow they just don't ring true. By contrast, another movie about the same decade, Paul Thomas Anderson's Boogie Nights, was all fictional, but the sheer energy and velocity of that movie convinced us otherwise.

Still, thanks to its supporting characters, Almost Famous is on par with Crowe's other work. He has yet to make a flawless movie; Fast Times at Ridgemont High (1982) is his greatest success, but that's partially thanks to director Amy Heckerling who smoothed out the story's many contrasting moods. Say Anything (1989) was beautifully and painfully true to teenage love, but suffered from a pointless subplot involving Ione Skye's father. Singles (1992) proposed to be about misfits in Seattle's music scene, but ended up following dull Yuppies with cars and mortgages. And Jerry Maguire (1996) was wonderful but didn't know when to stop. Now Crowe is inevitably going to be compared with writer/director Billy Wilder, whom he recently interviewed in-depth for an excellent book. Presumably he would have picked up quite a lot of good tips from that master filmmaker. But, to me, Almost Famous is nowhere near Wilder's level. Crowe still has quite a ways to go. Like a real 1970's rock band, he needs to learn how to cut loose.

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