American Fable is ambitious, maybe too much so sometimes, but there's an intense pleasure in the boldness of the film's style.
Sophia Loren was once in a movie named “The Pride and the Passion,” which involved hauling an enormous cannon halfway across Europe through deep mud. By the time they heaved the cannon into position, I had long since stopped caring, and even had a little difficulty remembering why they were doing it in the first place. The movie had expended enormous energy without cause.
“Papillon” is a movie like that: an expensive, exhaustive, 150-mintue odyssey that doesn’t so much conclude as cross the finish line and collapse. It has been outfitted with expensive stars and a glossy production, but it doesn’t really make us care. When Steve McQueen finally escapes from Devil’s Island we’re happy more for ourselves than for him: Finally we can leave, too.
The movie is based on a best seller by the late Frenchman Henri Charriere, who claimed it was a true story. Maybe. Not that it matters; fiction would have been fine if it had been entertaining. What happens in the movie, though, is that McQueen acts so dogged in his pursuit of freedom that we start looking around for supporting actors we can get interested in.
The movie begins with Charriere (McQueen), nicknamed Papillon (or “butterfly”) on board a prison ship. He meets Louis Dega (Dustin Hoffman, peering through Coke bottle glasses), the most famous counterfeiter in France. Dega’s life is in danger for two reasons: (a) a lot of people were wiped out investing in his bogus 1928 national security bonds and (b) he has a lot of money concealed on (or should I say in?) his body.
At the ripe age of 89, Oscar can still be a notoriously picky fellow when it comes to what constitutes a contender fo...