Despite talent, 'Bathgate' lacks dynamism

November 01, 1991|By Stephen Hunter | Stephen Hunter,Sun Film Critic

Is there anything in the world more treacherous than talent?

Consider the new "Billy Bathgate." It's a festival of talent: It's goso much of the stuff that the results should have gone onto the ceiling of the Sistine chapel instead of that faded old painting by that Italian guy. The great actor Dustin Hoffman starring in a screenplay by the great playwright Tom Stoppard from a novel by the great E. L. Doctorow as directed by the Academy Award-winning Robert Benton.

And here's what all that talent gets you . . . ZZZZZZZZZZZ-zzzzzz-ZZZZZZZ.

The movie is discreet, tasteful, handsome and well-mounted, but like so many refined and highly pedigreed people, it's about as interesting as watching noodles cool. It has no fire in its belly; a bunch of chemists could have made a better gangster movie.

Think of the dynamism that attends the genre, the spring-steel tension of a young Cagney, the shrewd calculus of deceit that lurked behind Brando's Roman brow, all those desperate black and white '50s sweat merchants like Steve Cochrane and Dan Duryea; now here comes the Mouse Factory with its contribution to the lore: to make gangsters dull.

Of course the filmmakers may have deceived themselves into thinking it wasn't a gangster movie: It was a coming-of-age movie, as if we really needed another one of those.

But if so, why did they begin with a controversial choice: The storytelling swiftly abandons Doctorow's mesmerizing slumboy argot and point of view. We are no longer inside Billy's head, but rather watching the events play out without filter in which Billy is just one of the characters.

But Billy turns out to be the least interesting guy in the movie, and something of a smug anachronism -- he's a gangster's gofer, but he clings to the moral distance between himself and them, which is good for his soul but bad for the movie. (Remember, by contrast, how ardently and unambiguously the young Henry Hill courted damnation in "GoodFellas"; somehow Billy's ambivalence is less provoking than Henry's zealotry.)

This is not entirely the fault of the dim young actor Loren Dean, who plays Billy, but Dean doesn't help much. He's pretty inert, and when he works to subvert the plotting of his erstwhile mentors after having sucked up to them desperately, it carries no moral weight. His ploys seem to come from nowhere. One keeps wondering why he's getting so much screen time, and the central drama of the second half -- his rescue of socialite Drew Preston (Nicole Kidman, also dim) from the anger of Dutch Schultz -- seems in the end equally weightless, since the movie, close to an hour and a half old by that time, has yet to convince us that these are characters worth caring about.

More interesting is Dustin Hoffman in the Dutchman's role, and more interesting still is Steven Hill as Dutch's resident math genius Otto "Abbadabba" Berman. Hoffman's wizardry has been a priori of the movie business since "The Graduate," and he lets go here: His Dutch is a wily, semi-histrionic little street lizard, smart and dangerous and glittering with dark possibility. His temper is truly terrifying; at any moment he's apt to lash out and kill unexpectedly.

Hill's Berman is less showy but more lasting: He stands for a different kind of criminal sensibility, the kind of iron logic of greed that quickly understands the odds and works with inexorable will to shift them in his favor. (An ironic footnote to these goings-on is that the "turf" being fought over is the numbers racket, highly profitable in the pre-crack days -- so profitable, in fact, that it has now been co-opted by the government in the form of state lotteries!)

Yet the film can't quite decide what its primary mission is. However riveting is the drama of the rise and fall of Dutch Schultz, it's still peripheral to the main thrust of the film; the replacement of the Schultz gang by the more ruthless Luciano mobsters and the gang's extermination in a Newark Chop House (to die in New Jersey!) are short-handed rather than fully developed. In the foreground, we are left with sensitive Billy, turning before our very eyes from enigma to cliche. He's sadder but wiser and it's better to have loved and lost than never loved at all. Have a nice day.

'Billy Bathgate'

Starring Dustin Hoffman and Loren Dean.

Directed by Robert Benton.

Released by Touchstone.

Rated R.

** 1/2

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