A Novel Approach

A review of HBO's Empire Falls

Good novels rarely make good movies, but author Richard Russo has somehow defied the odds. The film based on Nobody’s Fool captured the tenderness and humor of Russo’s novel, thanks in large part to Paul Newman’s spot-on performance as a sixty-year-old bachelor named Sully. Empire Falls, based on Russo’s Pulitzer-Prize winning novel (which will be shown in two parts on Saturday and Sunday nights on HBO), is also an unexpected success, and again Newman, who plays the lovably disheveled Max Roby, deserves much of the credit.

At first glance, Russo’s novels would seem particularly difficult to adapt to the screen. His books are chock-full of idiosyncratic characters that need the space a novel affords to stretch their legs (it’s no coincidence that his books are often over 500 pages long). Russo’s talent is best suited to the large canvas, not a 100-minute film, but HBO has solved that problem by giving Russo (who serves as screenwriter) and Newman (who produced the film) a canvas large enough to do justice to the novel. While I invariably prefer short movies,Empire Falls is a rare exception. It helps that the movie is being shown over two nights, so the characters stick with you for a while, like they do in a good book

The film takes place in small town in Maine called (you guessed it) Empire Falls . The once-vibrant community has been in decline since the local textile mill closed. The stories main character, Miles Roby (Ed Harris), is a newly-divorced manager of Empire Grill, the local greasy spoon, who contends with a moody adolescent daughter (Danielle Panabaker), a brother who may or may not be growing pot in his basement (Aidan Quinn), and a Machiavellian boss who has been toying with him for years (Joanne Woodward.) As if this weren’t enough, his life is complicated by a local cop who has it out for him ( William Fichtner ), a needy heiress who is madly in love with him (Kate Burton), and worst of all, his half-crooked, slightly fetid father (Newman.)

In the first half of the film, Miles takes these challenges in stride, as he has for years, but when he discovers something scandalous about his past, he decides to make some changes. Both the film (and the book) end with a shocking twist�one that seems out of place in Russo’s universe�which has always privileged character over plot.

Empire Falls will rightly receive accolades for its ensemble cast, which also features Robin Wright Penn, Philip Seymour Hoffman, and Helen Hunt. Many of the actors play against type, which is refreshing. I was sure that Hunt would play Charlene, the sassy, sexy waitress at the Empire Grill whom Miles has loved for years. (Hunt knows how to do sweet and sexy.) But instead she is cast as Miles loony ex-wife, who spends hours a day on a stationary bike to impress her husband-to-be. At times, however, the decision to cast against type doesn’t work. Harris has played brash and confident characters for too long to make his performance as the pathetic Miles believable.

Then, of course, there’s Paul Newman. While he isn’t asked to hold this movie together, as he did in Nobody’s Fool, Newman’s performance as Max is an absolute hoot. It’s a real kick to see the matinee idol who once starred in Cool Hand Luke prancing about the streets of a small-town Maine with crumbs in his beard, wearing a shirt that hasn’t been washed in days. More than anyone else, Newman conveys Russo’s trademark humor, which is the best part of his books. “You smell,” Max’s granddaughter Tick tells him at one point. “You smell too,” he replies. “But you’re young, so you smell good.”

Russo also directs some of his humor at the Catholic Church, but not in a mean-spirited way. As Miles struggles high on a ladder�and without pay�to scrape and repaint the church he grew up in, down below there are some amusing scenes between a young priest and the half-senile priest in his care. Yet even while Russo, who was raised Catholic, jokes at the old priest’s expense, he acknowledges the force of his ministry: at one point in the film the addled priest is pictured hearing confessions in a Key West bar. The Catholic theme of forgiveness and reconciliation run throughout as well. Empire Falls’ final scene serves as a neat explanation of the Catholic idea of redemption. While Max struggles to close the perpetually open glove compartment in his son, Miles’ car, Miles tells him it can’t be fixed, “Don’t be an idiot,” Max tells his son, “anything can be fixed.”