Titanic (1997)

Everything about Titanic is huge. The story, the history, the film itself, the expense of putting it on the screen, and most of all, writer and director James Cameron's vision of a grand love story providing the emotional foreground for an unprecedented recreation of an unprecedented historical event. And it all works--except that last one there.

I realize that I may be stepping on some toes. The American public has made it clear that this film is the return of Hollywood grandeur, cinematic storytelling at its finest, a beautiful tragedy that's compelling to watch. There's even Oscar talk; Titanic is the frontrunner, though L.A. Confidential may yet have some surprises in store.

But it turns out the main action of the story, a love story between star-crossed lovers Jack (Leonardo DiCaprio at his most embarrassing) and Rose (Kate Winslet, a cipher), is also a colossal failure.

In a film of such bigness, I truly think some people have tried to excuse the corny, melodramatic, unbelievable, uninteresting love story by tying it up with the really very well realized disaster. They let the emotional intensity of the disaster bleed over into the hokey love story until it seems like a smoldering romance on the order of Hugh Grant and Kristin Scott-Thomas in Four Weddings and a Funeral.

The first time we see Jack, he's gambling in a tavern. "When you ain't got nothing, you ain't got nothing to lose," he says, flashing that movie-star grin. It's a line from Bob Dylan's "Like a Rolling Stone." Is this a criticism? Not in itself. But Jack doesn't get one ounce more of character development. DiCaprio, in interviews, says it was a challenge to portray Jack, a "free spirit," "an artist." Well, that's what Jack is. A free spirit. An artist. That's all. Rose is the rich girl who learns something. Period.

DiCaprio and Winslet seem genuinely at sea in this cheap little affair. They are given some of the worst dialogue I've heard on screen since the legendary disaster of Things to Do in Denver When You're Dead. In that film, the characters seemed to be speaking Mad Libs, and they actually had to stop every few minutes to define the ludicrous, invented slang they used. In Titanic, the characters speak in song lyrics and anachronistic phrases when they're not simply exchanging some of the most predictable "love sugar" I've ever heard. I'm not cynical. I can appreciate love stories. This one is just hollow.

The ship's great. Don't get me wrong. Cameron shows us the Titanic. That's why the film gets two and a half stars, just on the edge of a thumbs-down, but not quite. You've got to see the ship. The problem is, these sequences work so well, you start to think. You're actually down there in the wreck. And you're not alone. There are thousands of ghosts there with you. They want their story told. Cameron had the best chance to bring it to life, and he decided to write a hackneyed teen adventure/romance.

When I first saw the previews for Titanic, I was very excited. Cameron brings us an epic. I'm ready. But the trailer also made me nervous. From the action, it seemed to me that the film might turn from an epic retelling of the Titanic disaster to a cheap love story with a contrived jewel-heist/gun-chase ending. Boy. I was never so right. Anyone who actually believed Billy Zane's character (What was his name again? Snidely Whiplash?) chasing the young lovers into the bowels of the sinking Titanic deserves to see this film over and over again. As for me, it's on to anything else.

Links for Titanic

Internet Movie Database Entry

Roger Ebert Review


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