A River Runs (Very Slowly) Through It

Empire Falls is a genteel, beautifully acted bore.

Now that sweeps month is over and the big network shows have had their season finales, the quality-TV baton passes back to the cable networks. Empire Falls, a nearly four-hour-long adaptation of the Pulitzer Prize-winning novel by Richard Russo, premieres this weekend in two parts on HBO (Saturday and Sunday at 9 p.m. ET). Directed by Fred “A dingo ate my baby” Schepisi, Empire Falls is one of those HBO prestige projects, like last year’s Angels in America or The Life and Death of Peter Sellers, that movie actors have been jostling each other to be cast in (perhaps in part because the shooting and promotion schedules for television are less punishing).

Feelin' lucky, punk?
Feelin’ lucky, punk?

The cast list is as crammed full of goodies as a gift bag at an A-list Hollywood party: Paul Newman, Joanne Woodward, Ed Harris, Helen Hunt, Aidan Quinn, Philip Seymour Hoffmann … and that’s just in the major roles. Every crossing guard in this movie seems to be played by a well-known and gifted actor, including Estelle Parsons as a crusty bartender and the wondrous Teresa Russell, too long absent from the screen, as a sexy waitress. Yet despite a half dozen near-perfect performances, Empire Falls never quite catches fire, perhaps because it’s scripted by Richard Russo himself, who makes the fatal mistake of turning great swaths of his 500-page novel into a third-person voice-over narration.

Relying on voice-over rather than dialogue to do the work of character development is a classic problem in page-to-screen adaptations, but it’s particularly noticeable here. At times, the unseen narrator of Empire Falls invites us to speculate on the motives of characters we barely know, with a level of expository detail that sounds like a multiple-choice SAT exam: “Was it seeing Cindy’s limbs become more twisted with each passing year that caused his 10-year-long meander in Mexico? Was it her continued suffering that finally lured him back, too late, to his own headwaters? … Or was it some darker, selfish impulse?” Hmm, that’s a tough one, but I’m going to go with #3.

If I gave away much of the plot of Empire Falls, it would spoil the best part of the movie, which is the lazy, novelistic pleasure of watching the multi-generational story unfold against the (overly symbolic) backdrop of the sparkling Knox River. Ed Harris plays the likable but spineless Miles Roby, manager of the Empire Grill in the gritty former mill town of Empire Falls, Maine. Though he’s been managing the grill for decades for its wealthy owner, Francine Whiting (Joanne Woodward), Miles still hasn’t managed to get ahead by securing a liquor license or, more important, the guarantee that he’ll inherit the place after Mrs. Whiting’s death. Miles’ father Max (Paul Newman) is a down-and-out drunk who’s not above hot-wiring his son’s car when he needs a set of wheels to get around town. Newman and Woodward are both cast against type—he as a marginal codger with crumbs in his beard, she as an imperious and manipulative villainess who seems to enjoy ruining Miles’ life simply because she can.

Besides the reliance on voice-over, Empire Falls has another flaw that runs through it as deeply as the Knox River runs through the town of the title: Ed Harris is miscast as the masochistic sad sack Miles Roby. From The Right Stuff to Pollock, Harris has made a career of playing taciturn macho men, and his deeply etched face now seems like an icon for resolute decency. In the novel, Miles was an overweight, incompetent bumbler who never gave his wife an orgasm; no matter how hard he works to mute his natural confidence, the taut, manly Harris just can’t project that kind of abjection. As for Helen Hunt, I’ve always loved her tart delivery of dialogue in light comic roles, but she’s in over her head as Janine, Miles’ shrill, love-hungry ex-wife, who’s just lost 50 pounds and is at pains to make sure everyone gets an eyeful of her newly skeletal frame. Hunt’s character may be desperate for male attention, but Hunt herself is even more eager to showcase her shaky mastery of a rural Maine accent. She doesn’t have ideas, she has “idears”; she doesn’t walk across the street, she walks “acrost” it. Helen? You’re from Maine. We get it.

One nice thing about Empire Falls: If there’s any particular subplot or character you really can’t stand, just sit tight and another will come along. This movie is nothing if not sprawling. In a series of melancholy flashbacks, Miles remembers his mother (Robin Wright Penn) having an affair with the town patriarch, C.B. Whiting (Philip Seymour Hoffman). Meanwhile, C.B.’s daughter Cindy Whiting (she of the aforementioned twisted limbs, played by the terrific Kate Burton), has been pining for Miles for decades, despite … Ah, just go ahead and watch it, if you’ve gotten this far. There are worse ways of spending your weekend.