Told from the perspective of one innocent maid Mary Macearchran (Kelly MacDonald) the story starts as she arrives at the magnificent country estate of Gosford Park. On this particular weekend host Sir William McCordle (Michael Gambon) and his wife Lady Sylvia (Kristin Scott Thomas) have invited an eclectic group to the house for a shooting party. The guests include Sylvia's two sisters (Geraldine Somerville Natasha Wightman) their respective loser husbands (Charles Dance Tom Hollander) her cantankerous aunt Constance (Maggie Smith) for whom Mary works British matinee idol Ivor Novello (Jeremy Northam) and his American friend Morris Weisman (Bob Balaban) a film producer who makes Charlie Chan movies. As the upper-crust guests bicker about money and power the ranks of house servants personal maids and valets below make sure their charges are well taken care of under the guidance of the head butler Jennings (Alan Bates) head housekeeper Mrs. Wilson (Helen Mirren) and head cook Mrs. Croft (Eileen Atkins). Through Mary's eyes we see that the glamour of the upstairs patrons and the seeming precision downstairs are not all they seem. The two worlds are destined to collide and when they do it leads to only one thing--murder.
One of the joys of an Altman movie is his uncanny ability to take a huge ensemble cast of really good actors and carve out a film from their personal stories. This style can also work to the film's detriment however and in Gosford Park the mostly British cast melds together almost too well. Often you can't even tell who's who. Still with all the talent involved there are at least a few bright moments: Smith as the wisecracking Constance an old lady who's very used to being waited on hand and foot gets all the best lines and delivers them flawlessly and veteran actress Mirren is also brilliant as the staunch Mrs. Wilson. She turns in one of the film's only heartbreaking scenes as her character grieves for the son she gave away long ago in the name of servitude. Also good are MacDonald as the young Mary Clive Owen as the valet Robert Parks who carries more than just a chip on his shoulder and Emily Watson as the headstrong chief housemaid Elsie. Northam too shows off his musical abilities as the suave piano-playing singing Novello. The rest all blend together except unfortunately the two American actors--Balaban comes off as annoying and Ryan Phillippe playing an actor pretending to be Morris' valet is in way over his head.
Interestingly the film is taken from a story idea dreamt up by Altman and Balaban. One wonders if perhaps the two were inspired to create Park after watching an episode of the classic '70s British television drama Upstairs Downstairs which was about a wealthy British household whose servant class had just as many dramas as the people they served (hmm sounds familiar). Sure it's conceivable that two Americans sitting around talking about making a distinctly British movie (and a period piece to boot) could pull it off and with a tremendous talent like Altman attached you'd think it would work. But Park misses the mark. The Altman-esque qualities are all there--the way he interweaves his characters' stories and shows real people with real emotions--but maybe just maybe Altman is simply out of his element. You enjoy the ride but it's not a ride through appealing territory and you're definitely watching from the window as the characters live a life you never really become a part of.
Gone 'til March.
That's what it's looking like at CBS, where its franchise late-night show (name of, um, "Late Night") might be out of commission for up to 10 weeks while host David Letterman rehabs from emergency quintuple bypass surgery.
Starting tonight, the network will deploy repeats in place of all-new Dave.
All-new Dave last taped on Thursday. On that edition, Letterman revealed to guest Regis Philbin (as well as his TV audience) that he was about to undergo a heart test. The angiogram, performed Friday, turned into a bypass (also Friday) -- the result of severely blocked arteries.
Doctors say Letterman, 52, is "doing great" and could be home by the end of the week. As for Dave himself? He (and/or his writers) are already yukking it up.
"I feel fantastic," the comic said in a statement released Saturday. "In addition to rerouting the arteries, they also installed an E-ZPass."
To "Late Night" producer Rob Burnett, Letterman supposedly joked that he felt "better than Jimmy Johnson" -- the Miami Dolphins coach who quit last weekend after a humiliating playoff blowout loss.
All right, so the quips aren't Coward. But take 'em for what they could be -- the only fresh Dave material until spring.
LOVE LOST: She may have three names, but come next month, Jennifer Love Hewitt won't have one stinkin' TV series on the air.
The Hewitt-headlined "Time of Your Life" is being benched by Fox for the duration of the ratings-mad February sweeps. In its place, the network will enlist the semi-hit sitcom "That 70s Show" to fill the 8-9 p.m. EST/PST time slot. (New "70s" episodes will air at 8 p.m., with repeats to follow at 8:30 p.m.)
And the future for "Time of Your Life" doesn't necessarily get any brighter after February. According to today's Daily Variety, Fox "may" bring back the twentysomething drama in March -- but not on Mondays where it was paired with "Ally McBeal," but to Tuesdays where it would be paired with "Party of Five."
"Life," of course, is a spinoff of "Party of Five," featuring Hewitt's Sarah Reeves Merrin character. The pilot, broadcast in October, saw Sarah leaving the "PO5" Salinger clan in San Francisco to seek out her biological father in New York City.
Despite Hewitt's status as a supposed "It" girl and teen icon, "Life" has floundered in the ratings. For the season to date, it ranks in 103rd place -- below already yanked stuff such as NBC's "Suddenly Susan" (No. 95). The show has proved to be no lead-in help at all for Fox's prized "Ally McBeal" (No. 24).
In other bad news, Fox also will pull "Get Real," its new hour-long "Dawson's Creek"-esque family drama, for the upcoming sweeps. That show's 8-9 p.m. EST/PST Tuesday time slot will be filled by Fox's usual sex, scandal and camcorder specials.
MOB HIT: "The Sopranos," HBO's critically acclaimed family mob drama, has been designated a future TV classic by cable's TVLand. The series, which launched its second season Sunday, "exhibits the qualities of a classic in the making, sure to resonate with TV viewers for generations to come," the network said in presenting its Future Classic Award. Past winners include ABC's "Sports Night."
TUBE TONIGHT: Norm MacDonald hosts the 27th Annual American Music Awards (8-11 p.m. EST/PST) on ABC. Scheduled performers include Britney Spears, 'N Sync and Creed. Sorry, earplugs not included.