- The Washington Times - Friday, May 27, 2005

The art of translating words into moving images takes another step forward with HBO’s weekend broadcast of “Empire Falls,” Richard Russo’s celebrated 2002 novel.

Ed Harris heads up a memorable cast as a man weighed down by obligations both real and imagined in this inspired, if slightly uneven, production.

The film airs in two parts, at 9 p.m. tonight and 9 p.m. tomorrow.

Mr. Russo, who wrote the screenplay, gives each cast member plenty to work with, and none disappoints. The revelation is Paul Newman, who betrays not a trace of movie-idol vanity as the irascible Max Roby, a man with crumbs in his beard and hair forever disheveled.

The novel — er, film — opens in the Empire Grill, the eatery at the heart of a dying Maine town. Grill manager Miles Roby (Mr. Harris) has been counting register receipts for years with little to show for it. His wife (Helen Hunt) is leaving him for a blowhard gym owner (Dennis Farina), and the waitress he has been pining for forever (Theresa Russell) prefers his handicapped brother (Aidan Quinn). His father, Max, is constantly pestering him for money to support his immoral schemes, and he can’t quite make peace with a childhood-chum-turned-police-officer (the underrated William Fichtner).

Those are but minor difficulties compared to his virtual thralldom to the town matriarch, given a wintry frost by Joanne Woodward. She all but owns the small town and keeps Miles loyal to her through long-ago promises he made under duress.

Miles, for all his rugged good looks and intelligence, is frozen in place while life swirls around him. Following his halting progress toward his own happiness is the journey here, one teeming with colorful supporting players seamlessly interwoven into Miles’ follies.

Director Fred Schepisi (“Six Degrees of Separation”) captures the novel’s many moods in a production easily as handsome as most major films, and Mr. Russo’s script establishes its small-town roots with a grace that parallels his prose.

However, “Empire Falls” stumbles near the finish line, its various subplots wrapping up a little too tidily. Particularly unnecessary is the tale of young John Voss (Lou Taylor Pucci), the castaway teen whose rage feels manufactured to goose the more subtle sequences.

Mr. Harris isn’t the first actor who springs to mind to play Miles upon closing Mr. Russo’s novel — we imagine a doughy type who looks like a victim of sorts. But Mr. Harris submerges his inherent strength and intensity so convincingly that the casting feels just about right.

The film’s myriad water metaphors threaten to overflow by the second installment, and the occasional narration is intrusive without doing much to move the story along.

Quibbles aside, “Empire Falls” could send viewers to their local bookstores, and a television movie couldn’t do much better than that.

***

WHAT: “Empire Falls”

RATING: Not rated (Strong language, mild violence and mature subject matter)

CREDITS: Directed by Fred Schepisi. Screenplay by Richard Russo from his novel of the same name

RUNNING TIME: Part 1: 111 minutes. Part 2: 86 minutes

WEB SITE: http://www.hbo.com/films/empirefalls/

MAXIMUM RATING: FOUR STARS

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