River metaphors run thickly and unsubtly through Empire Falls, Richard Russo’s adaptation of his own lovely novel of the same name. This is hardly shocking: Adapting the expansive 2002 Pulitzer Prize winner — a meditation on kindness, redemption, power, and the unwieldy nature of love — would be so mind-swirling, one might want to grab on to a big reliable metaphor. (A river, the Knox, flowed through the novel, too — just not so obviously.)
Empire Falls is a used-up mill town that’s been declining for decades, with Miles Roby (Ed Harris) chained to it. The unassuming, overly nice guy made a foolish pact in his youth to run the Empire Grill for its owner, Francine Whiting (Joanne Woodward), and inherit it upon her death. That Mrs. Whiting — who owns most of the tiny Maine burg — seems destined to live forever, and uncertain to keep her end of the bargain, doesn’t pique Miles much. To get piqued is to risk choosing a direction.
Which is just what HBO’s wandering, overcrowded film could use, because the two-part movie is packed with subplots. Miles’ peevish soon-to-be-ex-wife (Helen Hunt) is about to marry a strutting gym-club owner (Dennis Farina); Miles’ daughter, Tick (Danielle Panabaker), kindhearted like her old man, has befriended the dubious school outcast (Thumbsucker’s Lou Pucci, frighteningly shelled-out). Flashbacks tell the tale of Miles’ mother (Robin Wright Penn) and a mysterious paramour (Philip Seymour Hoffman), which builds to a discovery that Miles takes painstakingly long to reach.
Empire’s side stories all deal with a worthy subject: affections and attachments that aren’t always reciprocated, and are often plain nettlesome. Unfortunately, there are so many that none of them get proper care. Even more unfortunate is Harris, a fine actor who’s miscast as Miles, the moral, squishy core of Empire Falls. Despite grooming his hair to resemble a mad-clown wig, Harris remains too assured, too casually virile to play Miles, a man who never gave his wife an orgasm, who can’t stand up to an old woman, who won’t demand what he’s owed. The script bolsters the character further: It’s telling that film Miles makes a flirty retort to his longtime crush (Theresa Russell) that book Miles only wistfully imagines making after the fact. Miles’ epiphany — that kindness and passivity are dangerously close, and needful of separation — boils down to a few fisticuffs, and is quickly overshadowed by a dramatic splash of violence that the easygoing film doesn’t entirely earn.
Empire has its bright, redeeming moments. The scenes of small-town life — mealtime gin matches, high school football games — nicely mirror the accidental rivalry that builds when too many people have known each other too intimately for too long. The supporting cast is sterling, particularly Woodward, elegant and unforgiving as a Quaker chair, and her celebrated spouse, Paul Newman, as Miles’ foxy, shiftless dad. (Newman played a similar small-time outlaw in the great adaptation of another Russo book, 1994’s Nobody’s Fool.) In the end, Empire Falls is pleasant enough, just a bit watered-down and murky in spots. Like a you-know-what.