Milos Forman's adaptation of E.L.
Doctorow's RAGTIME is a mostly effective and compelling epic, but one
that suffers from Forman's decision to virtually eliminate the novel's
moral center by focusing on one of its numerous subplots. The
unnamed New Rochelle family in the novel (whose members in the film
include Mary Steenburgen, James Olson, and Brad Dourif) grounded the
many converging storylines in terms of theme and structure. By
eliminating all of the subplots but three, and by focusing primarily on
the Coalhouse Walker, Jr. story, Forman's film plays more like a series
of loosely connected character studies. Doctorow's main point in
each of the plotlines was to examine the various ways in which money
was beginning to triumph over morality in early 20th-century America, a
point that is marginalized in the film.
RAGTIME's virtues are many, however, and its messages resonate, watered-down though they may be The period recreation is rich in detail, the pace never lags despite the complex structure, the acting is first-rate, and Randy Newman's score is one of his most melodious and memorable. The publicity at the time of the film's release dealt primarily with James Cagney's return to the screen after his 21-year retirement. He's mostly effective as police commissioner Rheinlander Waldo (and his "You're a rotten piece of slime" emerged as the film's most quoted line), but he fails to convey his character's ethical duality as he would have done so effortlessly in his younger days. Brad Dourif, Elizabeth McGovern, Mandy Patinkin, and, especially, Howard E. Rollins, Jr. deliver the film's most powerful and memorable performances. It's also a great film to play "Spot the Future Star" (Debbie Allen, Jeff Daniels, John Ratzenberger, Fran Drescher), and if you're especially sharp-eyed, you might catch Jack Nicholson in an unbilled cameo. - JL
WHATTAYA HEAR, WHATTAYA SAY?
RAGTIME marked James Cagney's final appearance in a theatrical film appearance. Three years later, an obviously ailing Cagney would later star in the TV movie Terrible Joe Moran, with Art Carney and a young Ellen Barkin.