No doubt about it, the movies are growing up again. Just when it seemed we were lost forever in a second childhood, with nobody but Superman and the Raiders of the Lost Ark for company, Hollywood is showering us with the likes of ''Reds'' and ''Rollover'' and ''Ragtime.'' None are masterpieces, to be sure, and all show signs of lingering adolescence, such as ostentatious four-letter words that signal eager trendiness rather than seasoned maturity. But all are serious even when they fall down on the job, and all are helped by serious performers who know how to make the most of their material. Just what we needed to balance off the hogwash that has dominated the last couple of years.
Grabbing the most newspaper space is ''Reds,'' the massive Warren Beatty epic about John Reed, the author and activist, an early Communist who helped out with the Soviet Revolution and became the only American to receive burial in the Kremlin. According to Hollywood scuttlebutt, Beatty has been fascinated with Reed's career for a long time. And it shows in the monumental effort he has put into the film, which carries his name as director, producer, co-writer, and star. Quite a list of credits, especially since this is no quick docudrama, but rather a sweeping investigation - 31/2 hours' worth, including intermission - into the life and loves of a very complicated man in a very complicated time.
Beatty deserves nothing but praise for the attempt. He has boldly chosen a subject that is not fashionable just now, and a main character who is unknown to most moviegoers. Furthermore, he has structured the film brilliantly, intercutting dramatic scenes with real-life reminiscences by eyewitnesses of the period, from Will Durant and Roger Baldwin to Henry Miller and George Jessell. These interjections underscore the importance of Reed and the impact of his cause and his period. And they are hugely entertaining, to boot.
Unfortunately, the filmmaker has fared less well with other aspects of the movie. The biggest problems are in the first half, which centers largely on Reed's tempestuous relationship with fellow radical Louise Bryant, who became his wife and stayed essentially loyal to him despite frequent separations caused by work, temperament, and the vicissitudes of fighting the good fight. However their relationship may have fared in life, it looks terribly hokey on screen, where Beatty treats it as a series of trite domestic dilemmas, hackneyed love-hate diatribes, and hazy sex scenes. It seems downright ornery to subordinate the movie's mighty political themes - the American socialist movement, the Russian Revolution, et al. - to a love story that's so dull and ordinary. Maybe it takes a Tolstoy to integrate the storm of history and the raindrop of a love affair into one precisely balanced pattern. Beatty doesn't have the knack.
The second half is more successful, as Beatty gets bolder with his material and bothers less with everyday romance. Here the movie proceeds in great jumps from one major event to the next, tossing continuity to the winds and reveling in energy for its own sake. There are still weak moments - the meeting at a railway station, for example, is an embarrassing cliche - but you hardly have time to notice them as the film barrels along at a tremendous clip. ''Reds'' becomes fun at this point, but for many viewers it may be too late.
The performances are uneven. Beatty is attractive, though rarely inspired, as the main character. Diane Keaton is weak as his wife, though this suits the vacillating Bryant to a point. Jack Nicholson has the best lines as their pal Eugene O'Neill - or maybe it's just the way Nicholson drawls them - and Maureen Stapleton is surprisingly apt as the anarchist Emma Goldman, who shows up in ''Reds'' after being excised from the shooting script of ''Ragtime.'' Edward Herrmann and Paul Sorvino make less than their usual impressions, but novelist Jerzy Kosinski makes a promising screen debut as a mover and shaker of the Bolshevik brood. 'Rollover'
Another new drama, ''Rollover,'' is just as bold as ''Reds'' in dealing with unconventional and provocative subject matter. How often has the fragility of the world financial scene been the springboard for a Hollywood movie?
Oh, it's genuine Hollywood, all right. There's a murder scheme, a love story, and a bit of murkily photographed sex. But to the credit of director Alan J. Pakula and his fellow filmmakers, these obligatory items remain secondary to the main action, which is handled in a no-nonsense style that's as crisp as it is complicated. It's a businesslike movie about business, with just two major flaws to undermine its appeal: a limp performance by Kris Kristofferson, who looks woefully out of place as a Wall Street wheeler-dealer, and a finale in which the material goes berserk ruining the last ten minutes with a queasy mixture of sentiment and apocalypse.
The busy Jane Fonda (also starring in the hit ''On Golden Pond'') plays a former actress who becomes head of a corporation after her businessman husband is murdered. Into her life comes Kristofferson as an ambitious investment banker with a tempting deal. Gradually, they fall in love. And just as gradually, they discover that a certain magnate (played by Hume Cronyn, superb as always) is carrying on a nasty monetary scam right under their noses. In fact, it's such a monumental piece of skulduggery that it could bring the rich Arab world and the shaky West into a disastrous confrontation and knock over the whole teetering tower of international finance.
While the story has moments of sheer melodrama, Pakula keeps it under strict control most of the time, rattling off the yarn with such vigor that it's easy to forget how boring money usually is as a fictional subject. The film has a sharp visual style, too, using architecture more expressively than any Hollywood picture in a long while.
The screenplay is fanatical in its attention to detail and its insistence on capturing the cadences of the financial world. The tycoons talk like tycoons, just as the scientists in ''Altered States'' talked like scientists, without condescending to their audience or even slowing down so we can figure out what they're saying. It's a bit confusing some of the time, but it's refreshing to be kept on your toes for a change.
With so much going for ''Rollover,'' it's a pity Pakula didn't know how to end it. Unlike most movies, this one almost follows its ideas to their logical conclusions, not copping out. Though the climax is commendably forthright, however, the filmmakers fail to make it an integral part of their story. The last 15 minutes seem tacked on, cursory, and unconvincing.
What's worse, there's a sort of coda that sours the whole taste of the film with a blatantly false intrusion of artifice, elitism, and ''love conquers all'' mendacity. It's the kind of contrived ''happy ending'' that has less to do with art than with the sorriest side of capitalism - giving the audience a titillating shot of optimistism at the very end so they'll leave with a smile and tell their friends to buy tickets.
True, that's standard studio practice. But it's disappointing in a movie that purports to believe people are more important than money, and comes so close to blowing the whistle on cynical manipulation in the guise of corporate creativity. Like the serious-minded ''Reds,'' the thoughtful ''Rollover'' is almost an important statement on a major theme. But decades of dubious Hollywood habits are hard for filmmakers - even ambitious ones - to overcome. These brave new pictures come close to their goals, but fall just a little bit short.