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Empire Falls

Empire Falls
HBO Video
2005 / Color / 1:85 anamorphic 16:9 / 195 min. / Street Date September 13, 2005 / 29.98
Starring Ed Harris, Philip Seymour Hoffman, Helen Hunt, Paul Newman, Robin Wright Penn, Aidan Quinn, Joanne Woodward, Dennis Farina, William Fichtner, Estelle Parsons, Theresa Russell, Danielle Panabaker
Cinematography Ian Baker
Production Designer Stuart Wurtzel
Art Direction John Kasarda
Film Editor Kate Williams
Original Music Paul Grabowsky �
Written by Richard Russo from his novel
Produced by Paul Newman, Marc E. Platt, Scott Steindorff, William Teitler
Directed by Fred Schepisi

Reviewed by Glenn Erickson

This large-scale HBO miniseries is a class act that gathers a long list of acclaimed actors to bring Richard Russo's Pulitzer Prize-winning novel to the screen. Reshaped to a filmic format, the novel is brought down to the level of a soap opera with only slightly more compelling characters than usual. Great dramatic events seem like pointers back to the book and only grudgingly take on a life of their own. The wholly compelling character of Miles Roby seems frustratingly indecisive as the central figure - these people don't do things, things happen to them. With so many stories to tell, some characters seem left out while others resolve in much too tidy a fashion. Russo brings on a Columbine-like debacle in his third act, a 'shocking' incident that seems imposed on a less sensational story.

None of this will matter to viewers ready to enjoy three hours with some of their favorite stars - Empire Falls is still far more accomplished than most of what's produced for television.


Empire Falls, Maine is a depressed community economically controlled by Francine Whiting (Joanne Woodward), an imperious and controlling widow. Miles Roby (Ed Harris) runs a café for Francine but is stifled by her entreaties that he run as her mayoral candidate and marry her crippled daughter Cindy (Kate Burton), who still cherishes an infatuation from 25 years ago. Miles' own daughter Tick (Danielle Panabaker) bridles at the thought of her mother Janine (Helen Hunt) remarrying local health club proprietor Walt Comeau (Dennis Farina), and watches helplessly while poor student John Voss (Lou Taylor Pucci) is tormented by an insufferable jock, Zack Minty (Trevor Morgan). Janine is exultant in her escape from marriage with Miles, taunting him with her new romance and furious that both he and Tick disapprove of her choices.
Miles' wastrel father Max (Paul Newman) still hangs around the café, where his industrious brother David is introducing special menus on weekends that could make them real money, if only they could escape the control of Francine Whiting. But with the help of dishonest policeman Jimmy Minty (William Fichtner) Francine gets an early wind of Miles' attempt to go independent with bar owner Bea (Estelle Parsons).
Meanwhile, several revelations about the past give Miles hints to the true picture of the dissolution of his family when he was a small boy, what really happened between the Robys and the Whitings thirty years before. Miles' inability to get a grip on the present is hampered by the lack of a full understanding of the past, while the happiness of Tick's future may be slipping away.

Empire Falls is a sprawling narrative, and for the most part writer Russo and director Schepisi keep it all on track. The show is very successful at bringing off its major theme of Old Money warping the destiny of ordinary working people. Miles Roby's mother Grace (Robin Penn Wright) is more closely connected to the wealthy Whiting family than Miles ever dreamed, so much so that we'd think a good lawyer and a DNA test could turn the tables on the domineering Francine Whiting.

The show does an excellent job of charting the economic changes that will transform the sleepy town into a place where the present residents won't be welcome - outside investment will raise the ante for business participation and simply push them out. The heirless Whitings won't prevail either.

The hardest part of a multi-character saga like this is to keep it all in balance, and the show does better with some denizens of Empire falls than others. The need to show the backstory of young Miles, and his mother's connection with Francine's husband Charles Beaumont Mayne (Philip Seymour Hoffman) robs peripheral characters of time to establish their roles. Thus William Fichtner's obnoxious cop Jimmy Minty is introduced but left a question mark, and Estelle Parson's salty publican Bea is cut down to a minimum. The most slighted part seems to be Theresa Russell's waitress. It's a major disappointment when she's only used for incidental color. Even Paul Newman's show-off role is minimized by necessity in the second half of the show - when he leaves town it's almost to allow space for the story to proceed on other fronts.

The flashback section of the story that takes place in the late 1950s is sketchy. Robin Penn Wright is unable to flesh out her role; Philip Seymour Hoffman's participation is a glorified cameo. Much more satisfying is Miles Roby's relationship with his estranged wife Janine and his daughter Tick - low-billed Danielle Panabaker makes a much bigger impression than many of the leading players. A tragedy at her school is the biggest dramatic event, but it seems to be a diversion from the story's main thrust. Empire Falls is ultimately about the powerlessness of ordinary people, even when the news is good; Papa Max even wins the lottery, if in a small way.

The Maine locations will be pleasing in themselves. Curiously, the poetic interludes comparing life's unpredictable destinies with the river flowing past Empire Falls fall almost entirely flat, with Russo's Pulitzer Prize-winning sounding like homilies that belong in a Hallmark card: "Lives are like rivers. Eventually they go where they must, not where we want them to." And while the ending wrap-up leaves most of the main characters' fates in limbo, it finds explicit retribution for the 'villains' of the story.

Ed Harris, Helen Hunt and Dennis Farina are charmingly credible triangle. Hunt, Harris and Danielle Panabaker do the heavy lifting in the drama department, with Newman, Parsons and Russell as coloration. Kate Burton is the rich girl from Miles' past. Strangely, only Joanne Woodward seems forced and out of step as the frustrated Whiting matriarch with few redeeming qualities.

HBO's DVD of Empire Falls is a beautiful enhanced 16:9 transfer with excellent color and clear sound. Curiously, this is a contemporary story in which no television or radio is heard; Empire Falls is an insular place as devoid of outside media as it is of minorities.

The director and writer are featured on a commentary track and after a slow start conduct a spirited conversation of most aspects of the film. The second disc has an HBO 'making of' featurette that is really a glossy long-form promo for the show.

On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor, Empire Falls rates:
Movie: Good
Video: Excellent
Sound: Excellent
Supplements: Commentary by director Fred Schepisi and writer-author Richard Russo; promo featurette The Making of Empire Falls
Packaging: Two discs in booklike folding card and plastic case
Reviewed: September 11, 2005

DVD Savant Text © Copyright 2007 Glenn Erickson

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