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The Big Wet One

If one is in a Biblical frame of mind, the sinking of the White Star Line's R.M.S. Titanic about 400 miles off the southern coast of Newfoundland in 1912 could well be characterized as an act of divine one-upmanship. The 46,328-ton "ship of dreams" was struck down on its maiden voyage from Southampton, England, because mere mortals should not presume to blithely conquer the sea. Unsinkable? Ha!!

If one is in a Hollywood frame of mind -- in other words, vengeful, envious, anxious-- then the James Cameron film Titanic should also be struck down, because mere mortal film directors should not presume to run up a tab of more than $200 million to make a movie that could best be described as Romeo and Juliet get dunked.

But hubris in Hollywood comes with the territory. And sometimes the gods smile. For all its bulk and blather, Titanic is no disaster. It's closer to being a great big romantic cornball success. The film makes it safely into port courtesy of its costars, Leonardo DiCaprio and Kate Winslet, and its sheer golly-gee monumentality.

Movie spectaculars are often anything but. Speed 2: Cruise Control, for example, cost $160 million, which was about $160 million too much. Titanic at least lets you know you're watching a movie -- or, to be more exact, a movie-movie, the kind you responded to as a kid when you sat wide-eyed in the front row and couldn't even follow the plot, but it didn't matter.

Cameron, who wrote, directed, and produced the movie, seems to have conceived Titanic in precisely these googly-eyed terms, which is both the film's triumph and its limitation. As a piece of storytelling, it's almost as easy to read as a grade-school primer; even toddlers shouldn't have trouble following the action. But one doesn't necessarily look to a movie such as this for complexity. Cameron's script is all splash and swoon -- it serves up the pleasures of the obvious. The people aboard the Titanic are instantly pegged for us, and they stay that way: They're either greedy or good-natured or craven or valiant. Ambiguity and subtlety are strangers to this film. They're about as welcome as icebergs.

The R.M.S. Titanic disaster is one of those epochal events that allows everybody to derive from it their own meaning, their own spin. Just recently there's been a gargantuan Tony Award-winning Broadway musical, Titanic, and a spectral, delicate novel, Every Man for Himself by Beryl Bainbridge. Close to a dozen movies have already been made about the Titanic, and the most famous of them, the 1958 British A Night to Remember, is emotionally, in its stiff-upper-lip rectitude, at the opposite end from Cameron's film.

Cameron's spin is a familiar one: With its strict demarcations of first class, second class, and steerage, the Titanic was a floating -- or sinking -- microcosm of stratified privilege. Of its approximately 2000 passengers, the 700 or so survivors were overwhelmingly from first class. Cameron pushes the class inequities with an almost Marxist zeal: At times we could be watching a blockbuster Hollywood version of vintage Soviet realism. Almost without exception the rich passengers in this film are effete rotters and scoundrels, while the working-class are bursting with the life force. The wealthy represent the vanishing Edwardian order of things, while the immigrant poor are the frontier spirit of the future.

And yet the class "analysis" in this movie isn't really political at all. It exists to set up the film's star-crossed romance. Poor boy gets rich girl -- it's the oldest romantic ploy in the book. Jack Dawson (DiCaprio), a footloose, tousled-haired scamp who has made his living for the past two years sketching on the streets of Paris, looks up from the steerage deck at a first-class vision of loveliness -- Winslet's Rose DeWitt Bukater, a society girl who is returning to Philadelphia with her mother Ruth (Frances Fisher) and filthy-rich snob fiance Cal Hockley (Billy Zane). Jack wins his steerage ticket in a last-minute dockside card game in Southampton, and yet he seems more at home on the great ocean liner than Rose, who walks around as if trapped in a gilded cage.

She is, of course, looking for a way out of her loveless betrothal. When Jack later saves her from jumping overboard in despair, she recognizes in this golden-haired Romeo her true soul mate. He tolerates a dinner with her condescending consorts in first class -- it's his prize for rescuing her -- and then smuggles her into a steerage hoedown during which she boozes and stomps it up. Those poor people really know how to party! Jack even teaches her to spit, which means you can expect a scene in which Rose defends Jack's honor by spitting in the face of a rich prig.

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Peter Rainer

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