Say you've got this wise and war-weary colonel living in Montana around the turn of the century. Say he's got three pretty-boy sons--the eldest levelheaded, the middle wild and prodigal, the youngest sweet and sensitive. What do you need to turn this scenario into an epic tear-jerker Western in the sweeping miniseries style? If you said "a woman," you pass. If you said "a woman, a war, a wounded bear, some bootleggers and about three hours," you have a definite future in Hollywood.
In Legends of the Fall, Anthony Hopkins (in his clipped, tersely gallant mode) plays the colonel. He looks on fretfully as two of his three sons, sensible Aidan Quinn and passionate Brad Pitt, spend years in a tempestuous hissy fit over a young Englishwoman brought home from school by the youngest, Henry Thomas. It isn't giving away any great plot twist to note that Thomas is absent for most of this fraternal conflict--the minute we hear him boyishly bubbling about joining up to fight the Kaiser, we know he's Hun meat.
The woman (not very captivatingly played by Julia Ormond) has eyes only for the dashing Pitt, of course, which leaves Quinn seething bitterly on the sidelines. Then Pitt ditches her to wander the world in guilty agony (over Thomas' death, apparently), giving Quinn his chance to move in on the forlorn Ormond. But when, years later, Pitt comes back . . . You get the idea. It's a conventional soaper plot (adapted by Bill Wittliff and Susan Shilliday from a novella by Jim Harrison), laced with plenty of Sturm und Drang--grand passions and portentous dialogue and ominous symbols, like the bear that Pitt wounds as a kid, and later can't bring himself to shoot when he has the chance. The narrator is even an Indian sage (Gordon Tootoosis), the faithful family retainer. Legends of the Fall borders on camp more than once, but it's well-paced by director Edward Zwick (of the much more authentically poignant historical saga Glory), and handsomely shot by John Toll. Except for the lackluster Ormond, the acting is lively, and for all the corn, there's never a dull moment. Though it's shamelessly manipulative and obvious, it takes a stout throat to remain completely lump-free at the resolution.
Unlike the posters for this film, the TV ads are honest enough to admit that the whole thing is a showcase for Brad Pitt, doing stuff like riding with his glorious locks trailing behind, or existentially suffering on a South Sea island beach. His character here is a sillier, more exuberant version of the drunken, self-destructive Montana boy he played in A River Runs Through It, but that gentle, tenderly wrought film wasn't nearly as much fun as Legends of the Fall.--
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