Ragtime ★★★

I haven’t read E.L. Doctorow’s novel Ragtime, but it’s high on my list now – while the movie adaptation isn’t bad, I wasn’t surprised to find out that much of the book’s story was cut. Most of the movie’s second half focuses on Coalhouse Walker (Howard Rollins Jr.), an African-American piano player who has a run-in with a racist fire chief that sets a chain of violent and tragic events into motion. Rollins is terrific, as is James Cagney (in his final role) as a Police Commissioner whose story converges with Coalhouse’s. But while isolating part of a sprawling novel’s story for a film can work (The Door in the Floor, for instance), here, there’s a constant sense of a larger story, particularly with Brad Dourif’s and Mandy Patinkin’s characters, happening outside the margins of the frame. It’s an enjoyable enough movie that benefits from Milos Forman’s skill at creating period pieces that never feel weighty or self-consciously important, but I suspect I’ll love the book.