Is it to be the babe or the bear for Brad Pitt? That is the question. At least it is in the gorgeous and goofy Legends of the Fall, a tasty chunk of pop escapism that will most likely hit pay dirt at the mall, where audiences take their movies like their buttered popcorn — in sweet, nutrient-free puffs that go down easy. As Tristan, the middle son of Montana rancher Col. William Ludlow (Anthony Hopkins), Pitt must choose between the call of the nest in the form of a marriageable woman (Julia Ormond) and the call of the wild in the form of a pissed-off grizzly (Bart the bear) who tears his flesh and invades his soul. No contest. This is Jim Harrison country, where the macho ethic of the Michigan poet and novelist reigns supreme. Remember Harrison's Wolf, in which Jack Nicholson also got nipped by a furry mammal and turned primitive? Director Mike Nichols played the myth for laughs.
Legends, director Edward Zwick plays the myth straight. Harrison is still waiting for a kindred spirit, say Oliver Stone, to capture his gonzo poetry onscreen. Zwick is too slick for primal urges. He plays Legends for the ponderous sweep he brought to Glory and the glossy angst he patented as a creator of TV's thirtysomething. Susan Shilliday, who co-wrote the script with Bill Wittliff, also toiled on that yuppie whinefest. Whatever Legends is on film, it is not Harrison.
Zwick is aiming for a sprawling family saga in the tradition of Giant. And boy, does this baby sprawl. The story begins after the turn of the century, when the young Tristan first meets the bear, and ends with their final battle in 1963. The film is narrated by One Stab (Gordon Tootoosis), the Cree warrior who serves as a scout for William Ludlow and later as a hand on his Montana ranch. When the colonel's wife returns to her native Boston, One Stab helps the old man raise his three sons; ambitious Alfred (Aidan Quinn), naive Samuel (Henry Thomas — that's right: the E.T. kid all grown up) and untamed Tristan. One Stab introduces Tristan to American Indian ways, such as the joy of the kill, when a hunter cuts out the warm heart of an animal, "setting its spirit free."
In 1913, Samuel returns from Harvard to introduce his fiancee, Susannah (Ormond). "How intoxicating to have a cultivated woman in the house again," says the colonel. Indeed. Ormond, a London stage actress, is a radiant discovery. Alfred is drawn to Susannah, she to Tristan. These early scenes of divided loyalties and secret passions are the film's best.
Then tragedy strikes. And keeps striking. First, World War I. Even Tristan can't save Samuel on the battlefields of France; he can only cut out the dead boy's heart and — you guessed it — set his spirit free. While a globetrotting Tristan works out his torment with sex and drugs, Susannah marries Alfred, now a congressman. The colonel suffers a stroke, driving Hopkins into spasms of giggle-inducing overacting. There is murder, accidental death, suicide — all set to an overblown score by James Horner. There is even a rematch for the bear and Tristan, who refuses to shoot his prey. One Stab knows why: "The old ones say when a man and an animal have spilled each other's blood, they become one."
The old ones have probably seen a lot of hokey movies. What makes Legends such an entertaining male weepie is the star shine. Though the admirable Quinn has the toughest role, Pitt carries the picture. The blue-eyed boy who seemed a bit lost in Interview With the Vampire proves himself a bona fide movie star, stealing every scene he's in. Face it: The babe and the bear never had a chance.