Despite a Pulitzer Prize-winning pedigree and cast to which the adjective “all-star” hardly does justice, this assiduous two-part exploration of mortals in Maine represents a low-key follow-up to HBO’s Emmy-dominating “Angels in America.” Meticulously directed by Fred Schepisi but too deliberate in peeling back tale’s intricate layers, it’s the sort of pristine endeavor that requires a real commitment to hang in until the end, suggesting the finished product probably will be more written about than actually watched.
Indeed, the first hour of this classy production (structured throughout in chapters, as adapted by Richard Russo from his novel) plods along at such a leisurely gait that a certain impatience stirs for the juicy bits to come. It’s the kind of pace, frankly, that only a pay service would abide, even with the array of theatrical talent on board.
Nor can Russo’s rich palette of characters easily be done justice, though most of the action turns on Miles Roby (Ed Harris), the put-upon proprietor of a local diner in a small, financially bereft New England town. Although his mother urged him to leave, he’s spent the last 25 years tethered to that establishment, which, like nearly everything else, is run by powerful town matriarch Francine Whiting (Joanne Woodward).
Miles has endured no shortage of indignities, prompting his brother (Aidan Quinn) to chide him for his “defeatism and passivity.” His multigenerational labors range from a ne’er-do-well father (Paul Newman) to his teenage daughter (Danielle Panabaker) to soon-to-remarry ex-wife Janine (Helen Hunt), who arouses no protest when she complains that he never really loved her.
Through flashback, Miles’ history slowly unfolds via the romance between his mother (Robin Wright Penn) and a mysterious suitor (Philip Seymour Hoffman) while Miles’ father was in prison. We learn, too, of the longing Francine’s crippled daughter, Cindy (Kate Burton), has harbored for Miles through the years, even as her mother almost vengefully holds him in thrall.
Russo’s script is full of modest gems, such as Newman’s observation that he would “rather have a complete idiot for a child than an ingrate,” or Janine’s mother (Estelle Parsons) bluntly telling her she’s not changing, “just losing weight.”
Even at three hours-plus, condensing the novel represented a challenge, and some more exacting choices were doubtless necessary. Once Miles’ own arc gains momentum, and he behaves more proactively, some lesser characters merely seem to detract from that story, before a wholly unpredictable event leads in an unexpected direction.
Ultimately, “Empire Falls” flows through a series of unfulfilled lives, many tragic in their own way but not irredeemable.
Yet its message about love and hope finally plays like a Hallmark card presented by a sterling cast, highlighted by Harris’ sturdily noble anchor and Burton’s aching admirer. (Josh Lucas also makes a well-chosen cameo as the younger version of Newman.)
Given the scarcity of such fare, the tendency is to forgive “Empire Falls” for its shortcomings, in the same way that Miles accepts the foibles of those around him. It’s a pleasant enough thought, but at this length, no prescription for happiness.