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Copying Beethoven

Agnieszka Holland's profoundly silly Copying Beethoven belongs squarely in the "Aren't geniuses crazy?" school of cinematic biography. In a hysterical star-turn, Ed Harris plays Beethoven as Jackson Pollack's crazy uncle; he's Pollack minus the social graces and self-control. Harris gives audiences the John Belushi in-your-face version of Beethoven as a loud, portly, arrogant, obnoxious, scatological, clothing-averse proto-rock star in perpetual revolt against the world. Beethoven's deafness meanwhile threatens to turn many of his early conversations into extended vaudeville routines, complete with rimshot-worthy punchlines. If Harris scores another Academy Award nomination for his role—and you can't cast an actor like Harris as Beethoven without visions of Oscars dancing merrily in your mind—it'll be for the quantity rather than the quality of his acting.


Holland's heavily fictionalized take on Beethoven's final year casts Diane Kruger as a sassy aspiring composer who scores the opportunity of a lifetime when she's hired as Beethoven's copyist and de facto assistant. What follows suggests a classical-music version of Beauty And The Beast, and not just because one terrified supporting character actually refers to Beethoven as a "beast," or because Troy's Kruger—a luminous screen presence, but a complete nonentity as an actress—boasts the two-dimensional pluck of a Disney animated heroine.

Copying Beethoven wants to capture the aching, poignant contradictions of a vulgar brute in touch with the sacred and the divine. But in spite of Holland's painterly compositions, the film oscillates between florid melodrama and at least partially intentional camp comedy. Harris' crazed overacting is initially fun, but the energy flags and the comedy curdles well before he derides one of Kruger's compositions as highbrow flatulence, then spends a seeming eternity acting out his assertion. As an actor's duet, the pairing of heavyweight Harris and featherweight Kruger is redolent of Pavarotti squaring off against an American Idol reject. Copying Beethoven aspires to the sublime, but it stalls at the merely ridiculous.

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