To the question of the day--what does $200 million buy?--the 3-hour-and-14-minute “Titanic” unhesitatingly answers: not enough.
Note that despite the hopes of skeptics, aghast at the largest film budget of modern times, money enough to run a full-dress presidential campaign or put a serious dent in illiteracy, the answer is not nothing. When you are willing to build a 775-foot, 90% scale model of the doomed ship and sink it in a 17-million-gallon tank specially constructed for the purpose, you are going to get a heck of a lot of production value for your money. Especially if your name is James Cameron.
More than that, at “Titanic’s” two-hour mark, when most films have sense enough to be winding down, this behemoth does stir to a kind of life. With writer-director Cameron, a virtuoso at large-scale action-adventure extravaganzas serving as ringmaster, the detailing of the ship’s agonies (compressed here from a real-life two hours and 40 minutes to a bit more than an hour) compels our interest absolutely.
But Cameron, there can be no doubt, is after more than oohs and aahs. He’s already made “The Terminator” and “Terminator 2"; with “Titanic” he has his eye on “Doctor Zhivago” / “Lawrence of Arabia” territory. But while his intentions are clear, Cameron lacks the skills necessary to pull off his coup. Just as the hubris of headstrong shipbuilders who insisted that the Titanic was unsinkable led to an unparalleled maritime disaster, so Cameron’s overweening pride has come unnecessarily close to capsizing this project.
For seeing “Titanic” almost makes you weep in frustration. Not because of the excessive budget, not even because it recalls the unnecessary loss of life in the real 1912 catastrophe, which saw more than 1,500 of the 2,200-plus passengers dying when an iceberg sliced the ship open like a can opener. What really brings on the tears is Cameron’s insistence that writing this kind of movie is within his abilities. Not only isn’t it, it isn’t even close.
Cameron has regularly come up with his own scripts in the past, but in a better world someone would have had the nerve to tell him or he would have realized himself that creating a moving and creditable love story is a different order of business from coming up with wisecracks for Arnold Schwarzenegger.
Instead, what audiences end up with word-wise is a hackneyed, completely derivative copy of old Hollywood romances, a movie that reeks of phoniness and lacks even minimal originality. Worse than that, many of the characters, especially the feckless tycoon Cal Hockley (played by Billy Zane) and Kathy Bates’ impersonation of the Unsinkable Molly Brown, are cliches of such purity they ought to be exhibited in film schools as examples of how not to write for the screen.
It is easy to forget, as you wait for the iceberg to arrive and shake things up, how excellent an idea it was to revisit for modern audiences the sinking of what was the largest moving object ever built. Numerous films have been made on the subject, with even the Third Reich taking a shot with a version that concluded, not surprisingly, that the sinking was “an eternal accusation against England’s greed.” As Steven Biel wrote in “Down With the Old Canoe,” a fascinating cultural history of public reaction to the event, “The Titanic disaster begs for resolution--and always resists it.”
One reason this version is so long is a modern framing story involving nautical treasure hunter Brock Lovett (Cameron veteran Bill Paxton), who is scouring the Titanic’s wreck (it was located in 1985) for a fabulously expensive blue diamond called “The Heart of the Ocean” that was lost on board.
What Lovett turns up instead is a drawing of a nude young woman wearing the jewel. News of that find prompts a phone call from 101-year-old Rose Dawson Calvert (Gloria Stuart), who says it’s her in the drawing. Lovett flies Rose (whom Cameron modeled on artist Beatrice Wood) out to join his expedition. The bulk of “Titanic” is her recollection of what happened before, during and after that great ship went down.
Young Rose (now played by Kate Winslet) boarded the Titanic as a 17-year-old wearing a very large hat and metaphorical shackles. “To me it was a slave ship,” she recalls, “taking me to America in chains.” In plainer English she was being forced by her snooty mother Ruth DeWitt Bukater into a (gasp!) loveless marriage with Cal Hockley, an arrogant and wealthy snob for whom the phrase “perpetual sneer” was probably invented.
Rose may be a 17-year-old, but she knows a thing or two. She makes offhanded references to Freud, a wise gentleman no one else on board has heard of, and during an impromptu shopping spree she managed to buy works by Picasso, Degas and Monet despite Hockley’s dismissive belief that they “won’t amount to a thing.” Clearly, this prodigy of taste and discernment deserves better than Mr. Perpetual Sneer, no matter how rich he is.
Enter Jack Dawson (Leonardo DiCaprio), a madcap artist and cherubic scamp who wins his steerage ticket in a dockside card game. Jack is staggered by a glimpse of Rose, and though a conveniently placed Irish lad advises him “you’d as like have angels flying out of your arse as get next to the likes of her,” he’s not the kind of young man to give up easily.
Sure enough, despite the presence of 2,200 other passengers and crew, it’s only Jack who’s around to save the day when a distraught Rose considers suicide in a flattering evening gown. Despite the best efforts of mother Ruth (Frances Fisher) and Hockley’s snarling valet Spicer Lovejoy (David Warner), Jack and Rose are irresistibly drawn to each other. She improves his manners (not hard to do), he teaches her how to spit like a man, and they spend quality time in photogenic locations like the ship’s towering prow.
Both Winslet and DiCaprio are capable actors (though his brash brat routine is wearing thin) but they are victimized, as is everyone else, by dialogue that has the self-parodying ring of Young Romance comics. “You could just call me a tumbleweed blowing in the wind,” Jack says, adding later, “sooner or later the fire I love about you is going to burn out.” Most weighted down by this kind of blather are the fatuous Hockley, who has to say things like “you filth” and Bates’ Molly Brown, a character so relentlessly folksy she’d be at home on “The Beverly Hillbillies.”
Finally, after so much time has passed you fear the iceberg has slept through its wake-up call, disaster strikes the ship at 11:50 on the night of April 14. Cameron is truly in his element here, and “Titanic’s” closing hour is jammed with the most stirring and impressive sights, from towering walls of water flooding a grand dining room to the enormous ship itself defying belief and going vertical in the water.
These kinds of complex and demanding sequences are handled with so much aplomb it’s understandable that the director, who probably considers the script to be the easiest part of his job, not only wants to do it all but also thinks he can. Yet as Cameron sails his lonely craft toward greatness, he should realize he needs to bring a passenger with him. Preferably someone who can write.
* MPAA rating: PG-13 for disaster-related peril and violence, nudity, sensuality and brief language. Times guidelines: too intense for small children.
Leonardo DiCaprio: Jack Dawson
Kate Winslet: Rose DeWitt Bukater
Billy Zane: Cal Hockley
Kathy Bates: Molly Brown
Bill Paxton: Brock Lovett
Gloria Stuart: Rose Dawson Calvert
Frances Fisher: Ruth DeWitt Bukater
A Lightstorm Entertainment production, released by Paramount Pictures and 20th Century Fox. Writer-director James Cameron. Producers Cameron, Jon Landau. Executive producer Rae Sanchini. Cinematographer Russell Carpenter. Editors Conrad Buff, Cameron, Richard A. Harris. Costumes Deborah L. Scott. Music James Horner. Production design Peter Lamont. Running time: 3 hours, 14 minutes.
* In general release throughout Southern California.