Consistently entertaining, extravagantly produced, the 1984 winner of the Academy Award for Best Picture, Amadeus is just about impossible to resist, which is exactly what limits it. Based on Anthony Shaffer’s play about the putative relationship between Antonio Salieri (F. Murrsay Abraham) and W.A. Mozart (Tom Hulce), it bludgeons every dramatic point so relentlessly that there is no danger of any reaction beyond intention. The rollicking good times to result are real enough, but more than a little like a pianist banging a chord fortissimo repeatedly when finesse could evince even greater charm.
The conceit of both play and film is that Salieri, court composer to Emperor Joseph II (Jeffrey Jones) is a musical mediocrity cursed with the ability to recognize, but not equal, Mozart’s brilliance. Consumed by envy, Salieri does his best to block Mozart’s career. When his schemes fail, he resolves to kill Mozart and to claim the Requiem Mass as his own composition. This dramatically convenient opposition is unfair to Salieri to the point of slander, but fortunately for Shaffer, you cannot libel the dead.
At least he makes his calumny entertaining, thanks in no small part to Abraham, whose sly, slithering hypocrisy and guile inspire a kind of perverse admiration, despite his contemptible actions. Salieri knows he’s dirt, but as he says at one point, he is the patron saint of mediocrities, and thus his frustrations and humiliations are all too familiar to the rest of us. Hulce’s Mozart, on the other hand, points to the film’s greatest weakness. The central irony of the story is that Mozart’s genius does not compensate for his feckless, infantile behavior. In making that point, however, Mozart/Hulce’s fingernails on a blackboard performance makes Salieri’s resentment a bit too understandable.
The most obvious manifestation of Mozart’s vulgarity is Hulce’s famous, asinine laugh. His loud obnoxiousness no doubt is exactly what director Milos Forman wanted, for there is little in the film that does not demonstrate his total control (and many of the secondary characters blow their horns as loudly). 18th century Vienna (actually Prague) is re-created with splendid pomp. Cuts have the emphatic precision of a rock video. The settings and costumes provide a candy-box of delights. And there are several priceless scenes, particularly one in which Salieri is humiliated when his plodding composition commemorating the meeting between the Emperor and Mozart is transformed by the latter into a sparkling trifle that captivates everyone.
So even Amadeus’s flaws are at least partially intentional so that like Salieri’s operas, the film is crowd pleasing in a pushy, obvious kind of way. The revelations and boundary-breaking brilliance of great art or even just the graceful filigree of a Mozartian divertimento are impossible in anything so effectively programed. No work of art has to answer to such standards, of course, but it is worth noting that while you get your money’s worth in Amadeus, there’s no change to take home.