A consummate performance by Tim Roth in the title role is wasted in this confused film by writer-director Giuseppe Tornatore, who cannot decide whether he is creating a biography of a water-bound cherub or a meditation on the cantankerous nature of great jazz musicians, or a metaphysical treatise on the impossibility of city life. In any case, the script for The Legend of 1900 seems to be going in several directions at once, and while there is idealism aplenty in the leading character, a supremely versatile pianist named Nineteen Hundred, the dialogue is laced with vulgar and obscene words used for the sake of vulgarity and obscenity. The salty language is invariably inappropriate and incongruous, leaving Tornatore's grasp of American vernacular very much in question. There is also an annoying self-congratulatory reprise in every other scene, in which the characters self-consciously congratulate themselves for telling a wonderful story. Perhaps the story is wonderful, but it does not make much sense. Nineteen Hundred remains the same character from beginning to end. There is no arc, no growth, no development. Even legends are more dramatically interesting if they have a beginning, middle and end.

An immigrant mother abandons her infant son, who is raised by a sweet-natured black American stoker. He names the baby after the year of the child's birth. Sadly, Nineteen Hundred's loving adoptive father is killed in what has euphemistically come to be known as 'an industrial accident' when Nineteen Hundred is eight years old. Even then, Nineteen Hundred demonstrates prodigious skill on the piano, and it is not long before he appears to be playing compositions with four hands, even though he clearly has only two. (While most of Ennio Morricone's music is poignant, some of the incidental strains are reminiscent of TV's 'Mr. Ed.') Visually, however, The Legend of 1900 is always arresting and often exciting. D.P. Lajos Koltai revels in gorgeous compositions and sensuous images that will linger long after this schizophrenic fantasy is forgotten. The piano rolling around the ballroom in the storm, the flappers partying at the height of 1920s fashion, and the complex system of pipes and steel structures in the bowels of the ship are all richly brought to life thanks to Koltai's vision.

Nineteen Hundred plays for the ship's band, where he is befriended by the trumpeter, Max (Pruitt Taylor Vince), who is telling us about Nineteen Hundred's life at sea in a series of flashbacks. Our hero may be able to outplay Jelly Roll Morton (Clarence Williams III, in an outrageously stylized performance that is full of panache but bears no relation to the naturalistic approach of the rest of the cast) in a duel of 'hot' jazz, but lacks the courage and/or curiosity required to step off the Virginia, where he was born and raised, and where he had already made 50 transatlantic cruises by the age of eight. Nineteen Hundred's sometimes British, sometimes educated American accent is never explained, but he does not have the speaking pattern of his father-or any of the stokers in the hold, each of whom seems to have come from a different country. When Nineteen Hundred meets the woman of his dreams, cleverly called The Girl, and played by world-class model Melanie Thierry, he still refuses to leave the ship, even though she gives him her New York City address and what passes-in the 1930s-for a come-hither glance. In the final reel, Nineteen Hundred is still stubbornly hiding aboard the Virginia, even though it has long been out of service and is about to be scuttled. At this point, he turns to Max, who is desperately trying to save his life, and gives a charming, if somewhat rambling, speech about his fear of urban living as well as his anticipation of celestial jazz combos. And, yes, Nineteen Hundred has elected to go down with the ship, now crammed with dynamite. Watching the vessel explode, knowing how much greatness lies in Nineteen Hundred's curtailed life, is a pitiful, rather than tragic, denouement-and will probably leave those hardy viewers still seated after this overlong adult fairy tale with dry eyes, shrugging their shoulders.

--Bruce Feld