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Overall Rating
2.08

Awesome: 8.33%
Worth A Look: 8.33%
Average: 16.67%
Pretty Bad: 16.67%
Total Crap50%

1 review, 6 user ratings


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Ragtime
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by Jack Sommersby

"An Abysmal Adaptation of an Extraordinary Novel"
1 stars

Yes, it garnered eight Oscar nominations and a slew of Golden Globe nominations (though it didn't win in a single category). So?

The Milos Forman-directed Ragtime is an abomination. And not just because it makes absolute mince meat out of E. L. Doctorow's hugely entertaining book, but because even if it were derived from an original screenplay it would still be burdened with numerous ill-defined characters, choppy story lines, mediocre dialogue, and, most damaging of all, a smugly facile sense of self-importance. Forman, a Czech director who migrated to this country in the early seventies, had the good fortune to be hired for the 1975 adaptation of the well-received stage play One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest, which any director worth the salt in a mere fast-food shaker could've pulled off in light of the foolproof material. (Plus, it had a titanic performance by Jack Nicholson, which was the chief reason for its success.) Then Forman moved on to an adaptation of another praiseworthy stage work, the musical Hair, which he managed to mangle (and artistically murder) with spotty staging, clunky editing, alienating attitudinizing -- a natural in fluid film language and sensibility, Forman was not. And still isn't. Where Doctorow masterfully wove a delicious tour de force using historical figures in turn-of-the-twentieth-century New York, consisting of J.D. Rockefeller, Emma Goldman, Harry Houdini, Teddy Roosevelt, J.P. Morgan, Booker T. Washington and others, and dexterously interspersing them with fictional characters, Forman and his screenwriter, Michael Weller (who adapted Hair), have jumbled and juggled and hacked away at them to such a ruinous degree that neither a single character nor story line has so much as an iota of organic clarity. Not only do the scenes not congruently segue from one to the other, but the scenes themselves are poorly shaped and lack dramatic focus; despite high production values and a generous budget afforded Forman by elephantine producer Dino De Laurentiis, the film plays out as nothing more than the kind of ho-hum endeavor you'd catch on Masterpiece Theatre on a boring Sunday afternoon. Doctorow had stated the only way justice could possibly be done to his book would be in the form of a five-part television miniseries, and after seeing the film, which runs two hours and thirty-five minutes and doesn't adequately develop a single of its subplots -- and that's what the book was: a series of subplots bereft of a single main plot -- you can see that he was right. (Robert Altman was the director initially attached to the project. Would he have brought it off? Depends on the screenplay he went with, and if his handling were as vivid as in Nashville and not mechanical as in A Wedding, both multi-character, multi-storied.)

The four stories Weller has retained consist of the beautiful socialite, former model/showgirl Evelyn Nesbith (Elizabeth McGovern), married to the insanely jealous Pittsburgh steel millionaire Harry K. Thaw (Robert Joy) and having an overt affair with big-time architect Stanford White (Norman Mailer). White has unveiled a huge nude public statue that obviously resembles Evelyn, much to Thaw's chagrin; on opening night of "Mamzelle Champagne" at the old Madison Square Garden with all three in attendance, Thaw impulsively walks over to White's table and shoots him dead. Thaw is to stand trial, and his lawyers want to get him off on an insanity plea, and, with Thaw's mother in collusion, want Evelyn to embellish falsities on the stand for a handsome divorce payout of one-million dollars. Then there's an upper-class family in New Rochelle comprised of reticent husband Father (James Olson), pleasant wife Mother (Mary Steenburgen), Mother's neurotic sibling Younger Brother (Brad Dourif). Their successful family business is of the manufacturing of flags and bunting and fireworks; Father likes to think of the business as "patriotic." One day their supper is interrupted by a scream from their maid in the backyard: she's discovered a screaming newborn black baby in the bushes; the police do a neighborhood search and locate the mother, Sarah (Debbie Allen), who abandoned her. Mother, against Father's objections, takes Sarah and the baby into their home rather than the former serving jail time and the latter placed in an orphanage. The father of the baby is one Coalhouse Walker, Jr. (Howard E. Rollins), a brilliant piano player who's just landed a good job with a local band; he manages to locate Sarah and offers his hand in marriage, but she's reluctant. On the way back to the city in his brand-new Model T, Coalhouse has his way blocked by some racist firemen outside the firehouse; when he returns with an unhelpful policeman, his car has been defecated in. He demands the firemen clean up the mess, they scoff, he stands his ground, and is then arrested for having temporarily abandoned his vehicle outside the firehouse entrance. His vehicle is mechanically damaged when he returns, and he refuses to have it fixed -- he wants Conklin, the white-cracker fire chief, to restore it. Finally, there's the Jewish immigrant Tateh (Mandy Patikin), an artist eking out a living for himself, his wife and young daughter doing cut-out portraits outside his poverty-ridden Lower East Side tenement; he crosses paths with Evelyn, whose chauffeured car is stuck in a traffic jam. She adores his child, and, seeing her ravishing beauty, he's eager to do a portrait of her. Younger Brother, who's been attending Thaw's much-publicized trail, has been following Evelyn around. She returns the next day to see Tateh, but he's suddenly left the city upon discovery of his wife's infidelity; Evelyn then starts a torrid affair with Younger Brother, and Tateh finds a Boston novelty-shop owner interested in his creations.

Unfortunately, Tateh, the most interesting character in the film (and the most interesting in the book), disappears until late in the game. Also severely truncated is the romance between Evelyn and Younger Brother, so we're left with an intelligent actress like McGovern straining to convey dopiness and the ever-eccentric Dourif's queasy attempts at romantic, glandular obsession -- he makes Younger Brother both buggo and bathetic: you don't want to see him within a mile of Evelyn, despite low audience sympathy for her in that she's been presented as a gold-digging ninny. Mother and Father never come alive, though Olson, who starts out colorless, manages to inject the man with a shade or two of hue (his gradual warming up to and acceptance of Coalhouse into his family's life is rather affecting). And in a major miscalculation, Weller inflates rather than conflates the character of Coalhouse, turning his subplot into a main plot in the second half of the film. Outraged at the beating death of Sarah at the hands of the Vice President's Secret Service detail when she pushes through a crowd during a speech to plead Coalhouse's restore-my-automobile cause (a poorly staged bit: it looks like second-unit directing; then again, almost everything Forman directs looks second-unit), Coalhouse enlists some fellow blacks and starts dynamiting firehouses; Younger Brother, with his explosives knowledge, convinces Coalhouse to let him join him and supplies bombs for the "cause." Eventually Coalhouse and his gang take over Manhattan's J.P Morgan Library, which contains many valuable artifacts they threaten to destroy; with the police surrounding the place, headed by Police Commissioner Waldo (played by the legendary James Cagney), Coalhouse still demands the restoration of his car, along with the turning-over of Conklin to him. It's not hard to see what Weller and Forman are up to: Coalhouse carrying out a crusade against racism (Conklin), materialism (the aghast antiques expert almost has a coronary when a valuable centuries-old vase is thrown out a window into the street), and Big Establishment (government: the president and vice president's protectors; the city officials refusing to hold Conklin responsible). Cuckoo's Nest and Hair were left-leaning, too, which Forman flagrantly accentuated; here, with Weller's shoddy writing doing Doctorow's material no favors, and with Coalhouse's doomed fate simplistically rendered so he can be seen as the ultimate martyr, the overall result is something truly execrable -- an insufferable ultra-liberal picture.

The book was fairly leftist, and not a little bit cynical (Thaw, after a brief stint at an asylum for the criminally insane, emerged unscathed with all his millions intact, while Evelyn, newly liberated and independent and charitable under the tutelage of the anarchist activist Emma Goldman, "had lost her looks and faded into obscurity") but not one-dimensionally so -- it had nuance and corners; astute, witty observations; biting humor that made its the-rich-will-always-come-out-on-top implications only quasi-nasty. It also had standout passages that Weller has jettisoned: Emma slowly bringing Evelyn to her first orgasm with a hot-oil massage applied to her most erogenous zones (in fact, the character of Emma has been omitted); Mother's gruff-grisly father's arduous expedition to the North Pole (virtually all we see of the man are a couple of dinner-table-scene cutaways); the lonely investment genius Morgan, bored to death even with all his wealth, trying to summon Henry Ford to New York to participate in extracurricular activities; Tateh's continued development as an artist and elation at providing a better life for his daughter (in New York he had to tie her to him with a rope in fear of her being stolen from him while he worked). What's the point of a cinematic treatment of Ragtime if completely devoid of the book's richness, its textured milieus, its poignancy, its amazing multi-leveled deftness? Granted, Weller had his work cut out for him in the dialogue department because the book didn't have any (Doctorow described what the characters were saying); but surely we could've been spared stilted speak by the likes of, "I want justice for our people so bad I can taste it." The narrative and construction are a mess, the character arcs only within a fifteen-degree angle, and the character motivations hastily devised. Yet it's Forman who approved this patchwork, along with lending nothing vital in his own department. Direly lacking in spontaneity, the film is overdeliberate and vacuous at the same time: an unheard-of combination. The scenes just don't play. Forman refuses to actually delve into the scenes and bring anything out of them; he's so concerned with making a "respectable" epic that he's drained the life out of everything. Ragtime isn't just dull contextually, but visually -- the indoor sets are too softly lit, the exteriors never go beyond half tones in the color scale, and the compositions are borderline amateurish (Forman's working in widescreen for the first time, and he keeps the actor who's speaking dead center in the frame with nothing going on in the periphery). The sole saving grace is Randy Newman's bouncy Oscar-nominated music score: it keeps promising a far better time than Weller and Forman have even remotely delivered.

The DVD offers the film in widescreen for the first time (the LaserDisc was full-frame), but for special features, fans will have to look elsewhere.

link directly to this review at http://www.efilmcritic.com/review.php?movie=7520&reviewer=327
originally posted: 12/11/12 11:14:45
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User Comments

5/20/12 keith miron Elizabeth McGovern is such a great actress, plus I like her tiny little boobies :) 3 stars
5/03/10 PAUL SHORTT SOLID ADAPTATION WITH GOOD PERFORMANCES 3 stars
12/09/04 Taryn This movie was extememly dull to me. 2 stars
5/16/03 R.W. Welch Good looking, well-acted film though it doesn't really capture the book. 4 stars
4/13/03 Jack Sommersby Forman's typically stodgy handling dilutues a grand novel of most of its power. 2 stars
4/13/03 Charles Tatum Gigantic epic still stuns 5 stars
IF YOU'VE SEEN THIS FILM, RATE IT!
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USA
  20-Nov-1981 (PG)
  DVD: 16-Nov-2004

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