Almost Famous, writer-director Cameron Crowe's semi-autobiographical hymn to the joys and heartbreaks of rock 'n' roll, is filled with extraordinarily lovely details and an uncanny fondness for the film's 1970s setting. It's engaging, gorgeously lit, and filled with goodwill. The things it's not are believable, challenging, or memorable. It has obviously been made with great love - Crowe spent years trying to turn his youthful experiences into a movie - and Crowe's attention to the minutiae of the rock scene is heady and alluring. But Almost Famous ends up as far less than the sum of its parts - a movie so intoxicated by its period that elements like character and conflict barely exist. Despite its look and the rave reviews being showered on it, the film itself feels empty.
Though the movie's set-up seems improbable, it's based in truth: The lead character, Crowe's surrogate, is 15-year-old William Miller (Patrick Fugit), whose intelligence led him to being bumped up two grades by his college-prof mom (Frances McDormand), and whose burgeoning rock-critic talents get him disovered by Creem editor Lester Bangs (Philip Seymour Hoffman). Bangs assigns him an interview with Black Sabbath, but instead, William hooks up with the rock band Stillwater (a fictitious band created for the film); in turn, Rolling Stone asks him to cover the up-and-comers on the tour, hoping to land a dishy interview for a cover story. So this amazingly innocent, well-read teen becomes the group's unofficial mascot - they'll give him insight into the rock scene and he, hopes Stillwater's lead guitarist Russell (Billy Crudup), will make them "look cool."
William, like his mentor Lester Bangs, is profoundly uncool, and sadly, that applies to the presence of Patrick Fugit himself. Though blessed with the proper moon face and wide, all-seeing eyes, this young performer is too green to be carrying a movie, and in Crowe's vision, that's exactly what he's required to do. None of the band members and groupies - called Band-Aides here - are given sufficient personality on their own; Crowe asks us to see them as William sees them, and Fugit's face rarely clues us in. Almost Famous is obviously geared to be a coming-of-age story, but William doesn't come of age enough. With the exception of William losing his virginity - which, as handled here, comes off as pure adolescent fantasy - and learning one or two Life Lessons, Fugit is the same smiling, bland cipher at the end that he was at the start.
He's also, on the evidence here, not a very strong, or natural, performer. (By the way, I am aware that it might be impolite to spend this much time criticizing a young actor in his first major role, but Crowe's conception of William as the movie's star gives me little choice.) William's role is mostly that of the observer, but when Crowe calls on him to actually be part of the action, whether in a fight with Russell or in a declaration of love for the group's lead Band-Aide, Penny Lane (Kate Hudson), Fugit isn't up to the task. There's no feeling behind his rants, or his observations either, and his voice lacks even a modicum of passion. (This isn't just a matter of youth; talents like Haley Joel Osment and Kirsten Dunst showed exquisite technique at far younger ages.) He's a bit of a dullard, which makes a sizeable hole in the center of the film.
So William is without depth, and, shockingly for a Cameron Crowe picture, the supporting group doesn't really fill the void. McDormand comes through with some snappy line readings but has little to play beyond the fretful, uptight-mom stereotype; Crudup has a truly likable way with ironic comedy but remains, intentionally, unknowable; and Hudson, a breezy comedienne with built-in pathos, does all she can but is saddled with such an obvious, vision-of-youthful-perfection role (and is constantly back-lit with glowing, angelic features) that she's less a character than a phony ideal. Hudson is charming; Penny Lane is inconsequential.
Despite the shallowness of their roles, this trio is at least well-cast, and Crowe, as always, has grouped together a lot of other talents alongside them: Jason Lee as Stillwater's agitated lead singer; Noah Taylor as the band's beleaguered manager; Anna Paquin, Fairuza Balk, and Bijou Phillips as Band-Aides; and Zooey Deschanel as William's flower-child sister. All of them, though, have their natural ebullience watered down (I had hoped, after Adam Sandler's The Waterboy, that I'd never again have to see the naturally wicked Fairuza Balk tone down her party grrrl image), and the only cast member who comes fully alive is - no surprise here - Philip Seymour Hoffman. While his role isn't large, his presence is; the endlessly inventive Hoffman puts more soul and realism into his 15 minutes than you get from two hours of anyone else onscreen.
Almost Famous falters in terms of character, but I guess it's easy to see why so many boomer critics are lionizing it, because its period details all seem just right. The backstage sequences, the morning-after hangover rituals, the soundtrack, the costuming - these all seem, to this thirtysomething viewer, perfect. And Crowe comes through with some marvelously deft touches, such as the tracking shot that follows the band onstage and into the pulsating energy of a concert hall, or on the tour bus when, after a venomous fight, the band members and hangers-on spontaneously sing along to Elton John's "Tiny Dancer," rekindling their friendship through song.
But how are these genuflecting movie reviewers missing the film's glaring problems? Like the fact that we're not only deprived of even one entire Stillwater number, with which we could ascertain for ourselves whether they're any good or not, but we don't even see William reacting to the music itself, to see if he thinks they're any good. Or that the film's conception of Rolling Stone staff members is wholly unbelievable, from their planning a cover story from an untrained writer they've never met to their eventual denunciation of him. Or that initially clever, eventually contrived soul-baring sequence aboard a plane, capped by a truly worthless punchline. And the most glaring omission of all: Where is the characters' love of music? You feel it from Crowe, not from William, and with the exception of that brief "Tiny Dancer" moment, not from the band members and Band-Aides - they talk about it a lot, but none of it registers, and that's the one element that could have put this disjointed enterprise into proper perspective. Almost Famous is filled with a lot of beautiful touches and surface brilliance but winds up as a vacant, frustrating film experience; it's a helluva great-looking album cover that, somehow, didn't include an LP.