TORONTO 2000 REVIEW: Crowe Charms Again with Slight "Almost Famous"
by Ray Pride
(indieWIRE/ 9.8.00) -- Cameron Crowe may be the lyric poet of happiness in the gloomy vista of today's American studio cinema: a renegade filmmaker seeking bliss and joy in stories of puppiest love and mooniest longing, rather than through surging cinematic sensation. Resist the charms of his movies, if you will -- and I forgave much I found foolish in the characters' behavior in "Jerry Maguire" -- but "Almost Famous" is, and I forgive myself for saying so, almost great.
It's tempered autobiography, drawing on Crowe's personal history as a precocious reporter for Creem and Rolling Stone, when he toured with the likes of Led Zeppelin (who, in a rare feat of noblesse oblige, allow five of their songs to be used here) and wrote an intense, revealing profile of Jackson Browne, which left that 1970s icon feeling burned and betrayed.
In "Almost Famous," inexperienced, baby-faced William Miller is given a Rolling Stone assignment that will potentially become a cover, going on tour with apocryphal arena rockers Stillwater, fronted by one Russell Hammond (Billy Crudup, taciturn yet intensely watchful), who is resented for his looks and charisma by another member of the band, Jeff Bebe (Jason Lee, funny and focused, as always). What William does with this story will affect the course of his career and the career of the bands, and he will find first love in the person of Russell's greatest fan, Penny Lane (luminous Kate Hudson), one of several "Band-Aids," a clutch of groupies with better-than-average groupie manners who follow Stillwater. Crowe's knack for casting continues to impress: his original choice for Russell, Brad Pitt, could have toppled the movie's balance, where Crudup does not; and even actors who are chosen to be caricatures, such as the double for Rolling Stone's publisher Jann Wenner, are excellent choices.
William is played by first-timer Patrick Fugit, a charming and truly inspired actor who has a way of swallowing lines but still making himself crystal clear. William's large eyes, following the ways of this world he has only known through records, are filled with curiosity but also the necessary discernment, even judgment, of the born writer. There are several remarkable scenes with Philip Seymour Hoffman (great, great, great actor, huh?) playing Crowe's real-life mentor, the late, manic rock writer Lester Bangs. The scene in a cafe where Bangs lays down the law, the rules, the creed, to this callow-faced child is an instant classic. Then there are their phone calls late at night: William seeking the light, Lester offering sage, heavy-voiced brilliance about the ways of rock and more importantly, the ways of rock musicians, the two chatting as if they are the only two people awake on earth at that very moment.
A second or third viewing might lodge certain lines in the brain the way "Say Anything" left "I gave her my heart... and she gave me a pen" in the pop-cultural ether. But for the moment, I think only of Kate Hudson's angelic groupie, overdosed on liquor and 'ludes, dancing between lucidity and coma in the arms of William, the surrogate for the 15-year-old Cameron Crowe, earnestly in need of a stomach pump, burbling, babbling, and coming out with "I'm all about the positivity!" Crowe says Hudson improvised that dialogue, and his sense of community and purpose must be strong for a player to have come up with the key line to encapsulate the oddness and exultation of the 44-year-old Crowe's giddy yet heartfelt worldview.
The greatest failing of Crowe's fourth directorial effort is length: it's too short. The third act is rushed, and the story could easily permit a half hour or more time for us to wander, gratefully, through the lives of all these good, fervent people. There are plot twists that should not be given away, for there are more than a handful of worthy surprises; and there is not time to talk about John Toll's loving, almost sunset-free cinematography that allows Crowe some of his best non-dialogue driven scenes as a filmmaker; Frances McDormand's adoring but difficult mother to William; Zooey Deschanel's empowering older sister; and a dense but fluent song score. I'll see it again.
[Ray Pride is a contributing editor to Filmmaker and longtime film editor for Chicago's Newcity. He covers movies and the industry for TNT's Roughcut.com, Brittanica.com, and the BBC World Service, among others.]