After years of struggle, writer/director Crowe finally got the money to make his dream project: the story of his life. Uh-oh!
Now, many good writers have autobiographical elements in their work; by drawing on their own experiences, they can make their characters more real. But when somebody makes the grand announcement that "This is my autobiography", you sense the work will be filled with lies, whitewashing, and self-aggrandizement.
Here Crowe reexamines his charmed adolescence, where he was paid by Rolling Stone to tour with rock bands and write magazine articles about his adventures. Crowe's 15-year-old alter ego is "William Miller" (Patrick Fugit), a sensitive, brilliant, honest, likable – you get the idea – San Diego rock fan who is mentored by legendary rock critic Lester Bangs (Philip Seymour Hoffman), gets hired by Rolling Stone, and goes off gallivanting around the US with the fictional rock band Stillwater, where he befriends guitarist Russell Hammond (Billy Crudup), learns some valuable life lessons, falls in love, and blah blah blah.
It's the usual Hollywood B.S. masquerading as truthful humanist storytelling – and people are buying it. The real crime is that Crowe does have a fascinating story to tell, in the tragic life of the late Lester Bangs. Hoffman brings a great deal of depth, wry humor, and loneliness to the character, and he would have completely stolen the film if Crowe weren't more interested in his own ho-hum life story. Oh well.
Almost Famous still provides two hours of breezy entertainment, though Crowe's unerringly idealized vision of himself (William even gets to lose his virginity to three hot babes!) is impossible to get past. Aside from that, the cast is all fine, with standout performances by Hoffman, a hilariously energetic Frances McDormand as William's concerned mom, and Kate Hudson as a troubled groupie.
I wish Crowe could have delved into darker territory with Hudson's character; the young actress could have probably handled it. But Crowe is pure Hollywood, and you can't tear him away from his happy ending, his sentimentality, or his entitlement. After all, he once posed as a high school student in order to write a Rolling Stone expose on California teens that would become his script for Fast Times at Ridgemont High. When the teens he got to know found out that their "friend" had stolen their stories and humiliated them in print, then unapologetically made a fortune off their misery, their betrayal was deeply felt. Too bad Crowe won't write a story where he questions his own ethics.