- The Washington Times - Thursday, February 22, 2001

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One doesn´t want to hold a grudge against Ed Harris, an Oscar finalist this year for best actor in "Pollock," which distills events in the life of abstract painter Jackson Pollock from 1941 to 1956. But the chronicle starts to disintegrate and the performance becomes monotonous to a fault, partly out of fidelity to Mr. Harris´ obsessive notion of an inarticulate and terminally besotted personality.

We get early signs that the inarticulate angle could be a drawback. In early episodes that depict the oddball courtship of Pollock and fellow painter Lee Krasner, forcefully played by Marcia Gay Harden (who made the Oscar finals as a supporting actress nominee), Mr. Harris is a consort of few words. Indeed, it appears that Miss Krasner will need to do most of the talking, not to mention most of the carnal heavy lifting, if a relationship is going to endure.

Nevertheless, Mr. Harris looks physically right for Pollock, and a 10-year preparation for this particular labor of love and devotion, which Mr. Harris also directed, pays impressive dividends at crucial junctures.

The most crucial: depictions of the artist at work, contemplating and attacking the panoramic canvas that became a mural in the apartment of art patron Peggy Guggenheim (Amy Madigan), then seeming to discover the method that became his trademark after moving with Miss Krasner to a farm in Springs, Long Island, still a bucolic, unfashionable location in the Hamptons in 1947.

In a sense the sequences that re-enact Jackson Pollock creating the first of his characteristic "drip" paintings are Mr. Harris´ dance solos. His prolonged practice and rehearsal period, coached by artist Lisa Lawley and guided to some extent by a short film about Pollock made in 1951 (an interlude recalled rather caustically in the movie itself), seems worth the dedication. The actor seems to master a distinctive style of abstraction as we share his time-traveling simulation. Mr. Harris circles a large canvas placed on the floor in order to layer streams or swirls or specks or spatters of paint from the ends of sticks, brushes, fingers and other implements that never make direct contact with the surface of his composition.

Movies occasionally get this sort of concentration and application right. Mr. Harris does while doubling as performer and director. When Miss Harden gets a preview of the breakthrough and comments, "You´ve cracked it wide open," the movie has established sufficient familiarity with the New York art milieu of the late 1940s and the aspirations of the Pollocks to make the compliment sound both coherent and historic.

Composer Jeff Beal also helps to enrich these highlights with a deft, expectant musical accompaniment. His idiom tends to cover Mr. Harris´ silences effectively at certain points. Mr. Harris is also sharply reinforced by cinematographer Lisa Rinzler, a steadying, even impeccable, pictorial influence on several first features over the last decade. She and production designer Mark Friedberg give the production a crisply evocative sense of time and place.

What remains problematic is the screenplay, which seems at once diverting and knowing when sketching the New York art scene of the period but turns out to be structurally derelict. An exhibition set in 1950, during a peak of Pollock´s fame, is used as a framing episode for flashbacks that retrieve the title character and his intimates in 1941. By the time the continuity returns to the framing sequence, it is revealed to be a totally arbitrary starting point. The rest of the movie seems to hang on for dear life as events dictate a prolonged downhill slide. Success brings out the worst in Pollock´s vanity and rejuvenates his destructive tendencies, some form of mental instability aggravated by chronic alcoholism.

Sticking with its subject to the bitter end, the movie re-enacts the profoundly painful misfortune of a young woman who was killed, along with Pollock, when he drove off a road while drunk. What a cruel way to go at the age of 20 or so encountering a celebrity at his most loutish and suicidal.

TITLE: "Pollock"

RATING: R (Occasional profanity, sexual candor, vulgarity and graphic violence; fleeting nudity and simulated intercourse)

CREDITS: Directed by Ed Harris. Screenplay by Barbara Turner and Susan J. Emshwiller, based on the book "Jackson Pollock: An American Saga" by Steven Naifeh and Gregory White Smith.

RUNNING TIME: 117 minutes

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