Director: Fred Schepisi
Writer: Richard Russo (based off his book "Empire Falls")
Cinematographer: Ian Baker
by Jon Cvack
Here’s a film I recall seeing in high school when it was first released, never checking out again until over a decade later. It’s always strange watching a film where the characters shift from where you once were. When first seeing it I connected to the high schoolers and their sense of small town alienation. Now, I found myself engaging with the adults, who were attempting to navigate the town’s politics and secure a decent life
The story involves a small town, heavily controlled by a wealthy widow Francine Whiting (Joanne Woodward) who made most of her money from the town’s factories, but when the factories were shifted overseas, Empire Falls plateaued and never seemed to have progressed much further since. It’s a Domestic Drama as often seen during the 00s - with films such as In the Bedroom, The Ice Storm, Little Children, and others. It contains cheerful music that perfectly captures the small town relationships, and while shot with a very made-for-tv feel at points, the rich cast allows us to forget about the lacking style, forcing us to focus on the people rather than how they’re portrayed. While called a miniseries, being only two episodes, the story is very much a four hour film.
Empire Falls is the type of place you’d love to go if you never really wanted much else. It’s the town for those who want to find a comfortable and secure life, protected by a community of people who all wish for the same. The primary character is cook Miles Roby (Ed Harris), who’s at the center of the town’s relatively “dark” secret in that his mother Grace (Robin Wright Penn) had an affair with Charlie Mayne, who I’m not entirely certain, but might have been Francine Whiting’s lover or husband (in one of the first times I’ve ever noticed, the WikiPedia Empire Falls page doesn’t offer a full story breakdown, so much as a suggestive synopsis, and even stranger, the synopsis is identical on both the miniseries and book page, leaving me wondering if author Richard Russo or his marketers have edited this, as it’s really difficult to find out who exactly this person is, and frustrating when I don’t think it’s that interesting given what I’m gathering). So rolling with Grace’s mom having an affair with Francine’s husband or lover, this has forced a tension between her and Miles, somehow having forced Miles to maintain the diner - again for reasons I don’t entirely understand, but believe involved Charlie Mayne helping Grace much to the disagreement of Francine.
What I always loved about this sequence, other than Philip Seymour Hoffman playing Charlie Mayne (which is incredible, even with his half dozen lines) is that even when I first saw it in high school I was confused, though vaguely understood the suggestion. Russo paints a fascinating portrait of a kid who didn’t entirely understand the relationship going on around him, as older Miles begins to piece it together. I do wonder if in the book there was a more heated moment between Francine and Miles, as Miles perhaps lied or in some way defended his mother, leading Francine to force him out of college (or was this on his own volition?).
Although I think Miles put together the situation long before, the timing is coincidentally right in enlightening him to sell of the diner, and go into business with his ex-mother-in-law Bea (Estelle Parsons), whose daughter is the gorgeous and vain soccer mom Janine Roby (Helen Hunt) who’s about to marry the allegedly wealthy gym owner Walt Comeau (played brilliantly by Dennis Farina). They had a falling out for reasons that aren’t interesting, but also had a daughter Christina (Danielle Panabaker), who just broke up with the school jock, and has befriended a socially and emotionally disturbed near-homeless boy John Voss (Lou Taylor Pucci). All of this kind of gets a bit old at points, in which the film’s problem is exactly what the book would likely solve in that, with only about four hours, we don’t get enough time with any of the characters (the book’s near 500 pages). It’s not that I don’t care, so much as it sometimes finds itself much too cute, such as the subplot between Miles and the Church, as he can’t climb a ladder because he’s scared of heights. There are a handful of these subplots scattered about, some better than others, such as Miles feud with Christina’s ex-boyfriend and his old friend, now police officer Jimmy Minty (William Fichtner, who I love to watch and has really gotten back to the type of stuff he did from the 90s to mid-00s). It’s a fascinating conflict to observe, as it’s often what’s not said that drives them deeper into feud, especially with Ed Harris playing opposite. None of these become all that distracting, so much as leaving less room for the juicier material, or even better, to provide more information, rather than forcing us to wonder what exactly happened. For a movie that felt so accessible in its majority, many of the answers necessary to plug things up felt needlessly complicated.
Continued on in Part 2...
BELOW: Slim pickings on YouTube, so here's Paul Newman as a dirty old man
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