- The Washington Times - Friday, September 22, 2000

Weird stuff is bound to happen if you are a confirmed moviegoer.

Until I saw writer-director Cameron Crowe's "Almost Famous" a fondly vaporous memoir of himself as a young stringer for Rolling Stone magazine circa 1973 I never thought I would be nostalgic for Oliver Stone's 1991 film nightmare "The Doors."

"The Doors," at least, seemed to be a labor of love celebrating the rise and fall of rock star Jim Morrison in the late 1960s and early 1970s. Mr. Stone was misguided, but the director wallowed persuasively in his obsession. He had a flair for hedonistic authenticity.

"Almost Famous," which borrows its droll title from a national concert tour by the film's fictional band, Stillwater, has trouble getting untracked. At best, it is almost diverting in fits and starts.

Mr. Crowe enjoyed a major success with his third feature, "Jerry Maguire" (1996). The self-infatuated nature of "Almost Famous," however, leaves him dependent on a doting press and public.

Mr. Crowe's alter ego, a rock-infatuated 15-year-old from San Diego named William Miller, is sweetly embodied by newcomer Patrick Fugit. The character is everyone's pet and mascot while traveling with Stillwater from coast to coast. Maybe the filmmaker never has outgrown a similar status.

Though star-struck, William also is eager to file a road story that meets the approval of Rolling Stone editors, who know him only as an aspiring free-lance enthusiast and have no idea how young he is. Naivete rarely fails him, and solicitude enfolds him.

The principal subplot keeps tabs on the anxieties of William's mother, Elaine (Frances McDormand), a widowed English professor who allows him to take the job despite its bad timing (near his precocious graduation from high school) and her fears of rock-culture depravity.

During one phone conversation, the mother scolds easygoing but complacent guitarist Russell Hammond (Billy Crudup), who is idolized by William. She informs the faraway musician that he has temporary custody of a "smart, good-hearted kid with infinite potential."

But William doesn't even get close to appeasing the semifacetious request of lead singer Jeff Bebe (Jason Lee) to "make us look cool." William supposedly is on hand to witness the growing estrangement of Russell and Jeff. Ostensibly, their personality clash could sink the group, but neither personality stands out in forceful, charismatic respects. They look more lackluster now that Spinal Tap is back on the screen.

William, whose big sister Anita (Zooey Deschanel) has left home after chronic squabbling with mom, gets both a surrogate mother and big sister on the road: Kate Hudson, Goldie Hawn's daughter, as Russell's girlfriend Penny Lane, an alias that reflects her vanities as a groupie with delusions of grandeur.

Penny supposedly has elevated the role of rock tart with a term called "band aids," meant to emphasize a spirituality that transcends mere sexual availability or appetite. Ultimately, she suffers a rude awakening.

Philip Seymour Hoffman plays the only impressive character, the late, misanthropic rock critic Lester Bangs, who enriches William with sound and amusing advice.

"Almost Famous" demonstrates, if anything, that Mr. Crowe has found it all too easy to be everyone's pet. Now he expects the movie audience to adopt him as a teen-age waif.

One and 1/2 out of four stars

TITLE: "Almost Famous"

RATING: R (Occasional profanity, sexual candor and sexual vulgarity; occasional simulations of drug use)

CREDITS: Written and directed by Cameron Crowe. Music by Nancy Wilson, with musical supervision by Danny Bramson. Technical consultant, Peter Frampton.

RUNNING TIME: Two hours

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