After Jerry McGuire, Cameron Crowe was a legit, A-grade director. Whatever he made next was going to get a lot of attention and be under a lot pressure to live up to the standard set by its predecessor. What he made next was Almost Famous. A critical hit, a box office hit, it even scored a few Oscar nominations and one win for Best Screenplay. It didn’t just live up to expectations set by Jerry McGuire, it blew them out of the water. Everyone loved Almost Famous. Except me.
Seeing it sometime in 2000 or 2001, the praise was deafening and I couldn’t have been more underwhelmed. I thought it was bloated, overly sentimental and just dull. But in the years since, it’s remained well respected. So I thought it deserved a second chance. Maybe I was wrong all those ago. Maybe everyone else is right when it comes to Almost Famous.
It’s the 70s, and Elaine (Frances McDormand) is such an overbearing, protective mother, her daughter (Zooey Deschanel as Anita) moves away the second she turns 18. Which means 11 year old William (later played by Patrick Fugit) is the only one left to be smothered by 100% of his mother’s attention. Leaving behind her record collection, Anita kicks off a rock and roll obsession within her little brother. Cut to a few years later, and a teenaged William is writing music reviews for his local paper that he sends to his hero, legendary music journalist and critic, Lester Bangs (Philip Seymour Hoffman).
Impressed by the young writer’s work, Bangs hooks William up with his first magazine assignment writing about a Black Sabbath show. At the show, he meets professional groupie, Penny Lane (Kate Hudson), and the band Sweetwater. On the verge of being the next big thing in rock, William has an immediate rapport with moody guitarist, Russell (Billy Crudup). After his first article is noticed by an editor at Rolling Stone, William lies about his age and his sent on the road with Sweetwater to write a major article about the band.
Watching it again, all these years later, I definitely appreciated Almost Famous more this time around. I still don’t think it’s anywhere near a masterpiece, but the story grabbed me a lot more. Maybe as someone who’s written over a 1,000 reviews for a blog with upwards of several readers, I could relate more to the William character and his pursuit of a writing career. But the major problem I had 15 years ago is still the same biggest problem I had watching it today. Billy Crudup.
He has to be one of the most bland, wooden, uncharismatic, anonymous actors working in Hollywood. That detached, non-personality is perfect when he’s playing Dr Manhattan in The Watchman, but it doesn’t really work when I’m supposed believe that the character of Russell is this enigmatic, brooding artist who people can’t take their eyes off. And it’s even harder to believe that William and Penny Lane would be drawn to him on their own personal levels.
But, on the upside, this is a Cameron Crowe movie. So regardless of all that other stuff, at least the soundtrack’s pretty great.