I was at a bar in Scranton, PA a few weeks ago with a friend of mine (he’s also my screenwriting partner in the rare moments when we’re both able to shake off our collective sloth and, you know, actually write something). On the TV behind the bar, Back to the Future was playing, and I mentioned that I’d never actually seen it before. I didn’t think there was anything particularly remarkable about that, but apparently it’s borderline treasonous not to have seen the comedic stylings of the impish Michael J. Fox and the (possibly pedophilic) madcap charm of Christopher Lloyd, because my friend was appalled.
A discussion ensued, wherein my friend (accurately) pointed out that I have a strange aversion to watching what are considered classic movies. In my defense, almost every time I’ve watched a so-called “classic” film, I’ve been disappointed for two reasons: in trying to convince me to see a film that’s considered a classic, people tend to oversell how great it is, and in doing so, set an unreasonably high bar for my expectations that is almost never met. And, much like the way I feel about The Beatles, I can’t help but compare whatever movie it is to other films that have been released since the movie in question came out. Which is completely unfair, but that’s the way my stupid brain works.
Anyway, the discussion continued, and I finally pulled up the AFI 100 list in an attempt to defend myself and prove that I’ve seen plenty of classic movies, thankyouverymuch. Unfortunately, of the 100 movies listed, I’ve only seen nine, so I lost that argument pretty spectacularly.
So, with that in mind, I decided I would begin to broaden my cinematic horizons by going through the list and watching the movies I haven’t yet seen. And because I care about you, dear reader (as evidenced by my whopping 2 posts in the past 6 months), I decided to document my thoughts on each of the movies I see and assign them a grade. The ultimate score will also serve as a determining factor in whether I agree that the film in question is a classic. My grades are final and will not be reconsidered or altered, because I’m a stubborn bastard. Of course, I’m also an indecisive bastard, so who the hell knows what I’m going to do. And because I prefer a healthy shot of chaos in my movie-watching, I went through the list in no particular order; basically, if it’s on Netflix and it’s on the list, I’ll give it a shot.
And so, without further ado, I present my review of 1984’s Amadeus, starring F. Murray Abraham and…Tom Hulce?
(Jesus Christ, I’m going to hate this.)
Why I Hadn’t Seen It
Amadeus has been sitting on my Netflix list for months now, quietly waiting for me to pay attention to it, and even though I was classically trained on the bass and have a strong appreciation for classical music, I admit that I know next to nothing about the lives of composers, so it seemed like a good fit. But for some reason, every time I’d see it on the list, I’d be just interested enough in the idea of the movie to almost press “Play,” but then I’d see that the movie is 3 hours long and I don’t really care about Mozart, so I’d hastily press the “Back” button and re-watch some bullshit I’ve already seen.
Another reason I hadn’t seen Amadeus is because it came out two years before I was born. And though I love movies, my parents were not nearly as interested in film as I am, so there are a lot of classics that simply went unwatched in my house, which means there are many times when I’ve had to make a choice between watching a classic film that I should have seen when I was a kid or the latest movie that everyone’s talking about. Most of the time, I end up choosing the latter, which brings us to my current predicament.
Amadeus also has a few characteristics that made it harder for me to get excited about watching it. For one, it just reeks of Oscar bait- it’s a period piece, it’s (kind of) a biopic, and it’s aimed specifically at the kind of audience (read: old white people) who would cream their unusually-high-waisted slacks over this kind of subject matter. It also has a bit of a musical feel to it, and musicals are dumb as hell. (Just say the lines without musical accompaniment. It’s the same result.) And finally, it’s super hard to get jazzed about a movie when Tom Fucking Hulce (his actual full name) is the second lead.
The movie opens with a very old Salieri (played by Abraham) (F. Murray Abraham, not Abraham from the Bible) wailing behind a locked door about having killed Mozart. So we’re off to a strong start, right? Well, not really, because this movie loves — fucking loves — injecting silliness into serious moments. Not so much silliness that it reads like a comedy, mind you, but just enough that you’re entirely unsure whether or not you should laugh. The end result in this scene is a man, wracked with guilt about the death of his rival, on one side of the door, and two doofuses on the other side eating cream puffs (literally eating cream puffs), carelessly holding candelabras and playing out a Punch and Judy routine about how to get inside the goddamn bedroom. At one point, they even say something along the lines of “You won’t get any dessert if you don’t come out!”, like Salieri is a fucking precocious child. This movie is halfway between a madcap romp through the world of classical music and A Very Serious And Important Film, and it’s infuriating.
Anyway, they get the door open, and OH NO! Salieri has cut his throat (presumably because he realized “These people are my servants. I literally pay these people to hang out in my house all day.”). Much wailing ensues.
Next, a priest tramples through the snow on his way to a mental hospital to visit Salieri. Upon his arrival, we see all manner of mistreated and abandoned human beings. One of the patients stops the clergyman and asks for a blessing, which he gives in the most disdainful way possible. (Dude, blessings take you five seconds and cost you nothing, but you have a look on your face like the guy just asked if he could smell your chamber pot once you’re done using it. How are you any good at your job?)
Anyway, the priest goes into Salieri’s room, which conveniently has a piano located inside. It is unclear whether the piano came with the room or if they allowed him to bring it from home, but you’d think giving a guy who tried to kill himself access to an instrument filled with parts with which he could kill himself would be against hospital regs. Guess not. Salieri explains that he feels responsible for Mozart’s death and that he’s tortured by the idea that compared to Mozart, he simply could not measure up. Salieri wanted to use his music as a vessel for God’s voice, but felt forsaken when it became clear that God spoke through Mozart’s music instead of his own.
And then…*FLASHBACK!* They didn’t use star wipes for the flashback sequences, so they lost some points in my book. We see Mozart as a little kid putting on a private concert for the King of Somewhere (who gives a shit), and then we see Mozart in his late teens, still as childlike and whimsical as ever. When we meet the current incarnation of Mozart, he’s playing “Hide the Sausage” with a girl who appears to be roughly 14 years old, so that’s cute. He also establishes early on that he has the most obnoxious laugh on the goddamn planet, but for some reason, his laugh (which persists throughout the movie) is only referenced once as being annoying, and that’s like two hours later. Basically, Salieri is what you would expect of a classical composer: quiet, dignified, and gracious, and Mozart (again, played by Tom Fucking Hulce) comes in like “WHATUP DUDES I’M A SCAMP #MARKETDISRUPTION.” Somehow, Mozart gets the King of Somewhere Else all tight in the pantaloons over his dope tunes, and Salieri’s super bitter about it. (Side note: the King of Wherever is played by Jeffrey Jones, best known as Principal Rooney from Ferris Bueller’s Day Off and from being a pedophile weirdo who got busted with a stash of kiddie porn on his computer. Watching him is…distracting.)
And then…probably 60 minutes of nothing of any real importance happening. Oh sure, they go to great lengths to establish that everything Salieri writes is immediately upstaged by what Mozart shits out, but as far as the plot is concerned, it’s really a straight hour of “No, I don’t think you get it yet. Mozart was RLY GUD and Salieri was all [vomit emoji].” In fact, looking at my notes, about 2 hours in, I wrote “It’s only a rivalry if both parties know they’re participating, and until now, it doesn’t seem like Mozart gave a shit about Salieri’s work at all.” Anyway, they seem to get along really well and are very kind and complementary with one another. TYPICAL RIVALRY STUFF.
Side note: it’s always interesting looking at older movies and seeing some of the actors who got parts. For example, Tom (Fucking) Hulce beat out Tim Curry and Mark Hamill for the role. Mark Hamill would have been a goddamn disaster, but Tim Curry would’ve rocked that shit. Also, Tom Hulce was in Animal House, Amadeus, Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, and had a bit part in Will Ferrell’s Stranger Than Fiction. I was impressed for about 3 minutes, and then I realized that none of that is particularly cool.
About an hour or so into the movie, there’s a random shot of caribou frolicking. It’s never referenced again. It’s also kind of a running theme where random things just seem to happen with no real explanation or ties to the plot. For example, at one point, Tom Hulce walks through the streets with a bottle of champagne and comes across a trained bear. Granted, I wasn’t alive in 18th-century Vienna, but that strikes me as something that didn’t happen very often. And even if it did…why is it in the fucking movie?!
After a roughly one-hour deviation from anything that could potentially move the story forward, we get to the meat of the tale: Mozart, in debt up to his eyeballs, in terrible health and miserable after the death of his father (not important), is commissioned by a mysterious stranger (it’s Salieri wearing a masquerade ball costume) to write a funeral piece. Salieri’s plan is for Mozart to complete the funeral piece, kill Mozart, then claim that piece as his own at Mozart’s funeral, thus giving him the last word in their rivalry and marking him as Mozart’s equal. Of course, Salieri also isn’t really sure how he’ll kill Mozart, so. (Also, this plan was unveiled two hours and seven minutes into the fucking movie.)
Long story short, though, Salieri doesn’t have to kill Mozart. Because Mozart gets so wrapped up in what he’s composing, by writing a song about death, Mozart inadvertently hastens his own demise in order to write the perfect funeral song. Salieri takes credit for the funeral song, but is left to grapple with the truth: he could never have written anything as beautiful as Mozart could, and all the accolades he’s received from the public following the unveiling of “Requiem: Lacrimosa” (which is a fucking incredible composition) were attained under false pretenses. The film ends with Salieri finally embracing his mediocrity, grateful to have even breathed the same air of a singular genius such as Mozart.
Random Thoughts (as written while I watched the movie)
- Oh, the lady from “Black Sheep” is in this. This seems like a weird casting decision, but then again, she’s doing a good job.
- [20 minutes later]: No wait, she isn’t.
- It is super difficult to watch older movies knowing what I know about certain actors’ careers and what they did after the movie. In a way, it almost diminishes what they did in the movie. (Ahem, Tom Hulce.)
- F. Murray Abraham has looked exactly the same for the past 50 years. It’s remarkable.
- Also, he apparently learned how to write, play and conduct music for this role. Everybody always talks about Daniel Day-Lewis being a Method actor, but F. Murray Abraham doesn’t get enough credit.
- I like that they didn’t put on the vaguely British vocal affectations like most movies of this ilk do. Apparently, Milos Forman told the actors not to bother and just to focus on the performances.
- “You must submit your stuff.” “Shut up! Just shut up!” The dialogue in this movie is all over the fucking place. I blame the caribou.
- They nailed the old-man makeup on Abraham. Got that paper-thin skin and all.
- Mozart’s wife looks creepily young. I find this plot line more than a little distracting.
- Maybe it’s because F. Murray Abraham came out of the womb looking like he’s 58 years old. Or maybe it’s because she’s approximately 4’6”.
- Despite looking kind of like Christoph Waltz, Tom Hulce is either a poor man’s Christoph Waltz (my words) or a less realized Christoph Waltz (Erin’s words). Either way, he’s no Christoph Waltz.
- When Mozart’s dad came to visit, he seemed all mad because the place was messy, but still…kind of a nice place regardless, man. Plus, it’s not like he knew you were coming.
- It’s kind of hilarious that having debts is considered an insult in this movie, when it’s pretty much entirely what our economy is built on. And by “hilarious,” I mean “horrifying.”
- There’s a “getting dressed for a party” montage, complete with silly hats. Which is roughly around the time that I stopped giving a shit what happened to any of these characters.
- Was Mozart disabled or something? He seems overly childlike.
- Seriously, who the fuck is writing this dialogue? “Look, old man”? “LOOK, OLD MAN”? NOBODY SAID THAT IN THE 18TH CENTURY.
- Cynthia Nixon (of Sex and the City…ugh, fame) is in this movie. She kinda looks like she was stolen from the set of a reality show filming nearby about albino families who intermarry.
- How are you gonna say “I am fed to the teeth by legends!” and “Look, old man” in the same movie?
- Okay, we’re halfway through the movie, and I think I’m detecting a plot device that will sustain the back half. So that’s a start.
- I like the legitimately toad-looking man playing the Emperor’s toadie. It fits.
- He’s also very sweaty.
- I think I only like opera when someone explains to me exactly what’s happening, because the scene with Act IV of “The Marriage of Figaro” is excellent.
- Tom Hulce after his dad dies looks like Jeremy Piven. So for those keeping score at home: with blond hair, he looks like Christoph Waltz. With brown hair, Jeremy Piven. PRETTY COOL TRICK.
- I’m just gonna say it: the opera scenes are way too long. I don’t actually want to go to the opera, guys. That’s why I’m just watching the movie on my couch.
- If Salieri is the only one who recognizes Mozart’s genius, why is he going out of his way to sabotage him? Isn’t it enough to have the public and critical acclaim and still appreciate someone else’s music without losing your mind?
While F. Murray Abraham’s performance is fantastic and Tom Hulce does a pretty decent job of bringing his character to life, the movie is way too sprawling and drawn-out. There are a million subplots that ultimately amount to nothing, and though the ending was really well done, they could easily have taken an hour off of the runtime of this movie and not lost anything crucial to the story. Oh, also, Salieri never commissioned that piece from Mozart. I forgot to mention that: this story is only like 30% true, and they called it a “work of historical fiction.” So not only is it overly long, it’s overly long and filled with shit that most likely didn’t even happen.
Overall Grade: B-
Is It A Classic?