TITANIC, the $200 million budget. TITANIC, the perfectionist
auteur's baby which missed its summer release date. TITANIC, the
production where the catering table was laced with hallucinogens, sending
several cast and crew members to the hospital. TITANIC, the mega-event
which has two studios holding their breath as though they were actually on
the fated ship. TITANIC, the entertainment industry headline. Not
TITANIC, the movie...TITANIC, the story.
It's hard for a film to crawl out from under that kind of baggage, so
give James Cameron all the credit in the world: for nearly half the
film's running time, I forgot that I was watching that TITANIC. I was
too caught up in the story of two fictional passengers on the April 1912
maiden voyage of the largest, most luxurious moving vessel ever created by
man. Itinerant American artist-at-large Jack Dawson (Leonardo DiCaprio)
winds up on board when he wins a ticket in a poker game; upper class Rose
DeWitt Bukater (Kate Winslet) travels with her mother (Frances Fisher) and
fiance, million-heir Cal Hockley (Billy Zane). Unfortunately, Rose hates
her imperious fiance, the snobbish mother forcing her into the marriage,
and the whole circumstance of her socially prescribed life. She is
preparing to leap from the Titanic's railing when Jack saves her, and
begins to show her another world. Only the jealous Cal -- and an
inconvenient iceberg -- can stand in the way of their love.
That central romance -- framed by a modern-day sequence in which the
100-year-old Rose (Gloria Stuart) recounts her story to a salvage team led
by Brock Lovett (Bill Paxton) -- is captivating from start to finish.
DiCaprio and Winslet share an extraordinary chemistry, two charismatic
young actors with mischievous eyes who create a tangibly passionate
pairing. Though most of the characters around them are more functional
than fleshed-out, particularly Billy Zane's sneering patrician, the two
stars likely would have overwhelmed all comers regardless of their
multi-dimensionality. This may be the year's most effective and
consistently entertaining love story.
Oh, and it's also about a big boat going belly-up. Those who come
for the sinking rather than the swooning aren't likely to be disappointed
with the spectacle Cameron offers. His obsession with historical accuracy
begins with the dazzling duplication of the ship's lavish decor and ends
with a virtually real-time re-creation of its journey to the bottom of the
Atlantic. The chaotic evacuation keeps tensions high, and even mixes in
potent understated moments like the ship's designer Thomas Andrews (Victor
Garber) mournfully correcting the dining room clock while his creation
collapses arount him. The sinking ship, while awe-inspiring, also becomes
a distraction from the focal romance. TITANIC is an impressively-mounted
disaster movie during its second half, but it's still basically a disaster
movie. Once the ship is down, and the lovers once again have time to
share a powerful, quiet moment, it becomes clear that the large-scale
drama can't match the small-scale drama.
People will want to go see TITANIC simply to see what a $200 million
movie looks like. And it looks great, rich in period detail and sweeping
views of Cameron's massive scale-model Titanic. More important than how
it looks, though, is how it feels. It feels like it has a heart, real
emotion powering the narrative in a way dollar signs can't. Somewhere
past the headlines, the gossip, the turmoil and the accounting details is
a magnificent piece of epic film-making. It's time for TITANIC, the
movie, to sink or swim on its own impressive merits.
On the Renshaw scale of 0 to 10 salvaged ships: 9.
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