Aiello's superb performance can't rescue confused 'Ruby'

March 27, 1992|By Stephen Hunter | Stephen Hunter,Film Critic

Danny Aiello could read the S-through-Zs in the New York phone directory and make it meaningful, poignant and exquisite, and so what he does with the pathetic mensch Jack Ruby in "Ruby" is something to behold.

Unfortunately, the movie that surrounds this masterful performance isn't much to behold at all. It's another somewhat confusing slush to judgment through what has become the 20th century's most legendary and primordial quagmire, the Dallas of 1963.

The theory advanced here is related to -- but checks in somewhat to the right of -- Oliver Stone's Whole Unified Assassination theory; it holds elements of organized crime, marginally abetted by mysterious CIA naughty boys with Cuban emigre connections, responsible for the shooting of President Kennedy. Jack Ruby is the smallest cog in the great wheel of conspiracy, and his view of events is necessarily limited; alas, his own lack of clarity infects the movie, which too often seems arbitrarily mechanical and dense.

The plot, in so much as I can figure it out, begins with Jack, a minor mob figure in Dallas, being recruited by an ambitious mob guy to nail Santos Tropicante, the New Orleans crime boss who happens to be temporarily incarcerated in Cuba. The weapon provided -- a Bell & Howell camera with a .38 snub-nose where the zoom lens ought to be -- bespeaks a technical sophistication beyond mob means, which shakes Jack up. Then it turns out Jack doesn't have the nerve to pull the trigger on a big boy, and he blows the plotter away instead, thus beginning a rise through the mob hierarchy.

It doesn't hurt that he's hired Candy Cane (Sherilyn Flynn) as his new hot act, and the mob boys take an immediate liking to her. In fact, the treatment of Flynn's Cane is emblematic of the movie's somewhat cavalier approach to history: she's been made up to look frighteningly like Marilyn Monroe, with whom JFK is alleged to have had an affair and with whose death zanier theorists have postulated a JFK connection. At the same time, she's clearly playing a version of Judith Exner, who was both Sam Giancana and JFK's mistress; but, at the same time, she's stripping in the tacky Carousel Club in Dallas. And, to confuse matters more, if such a thing is possible, a post-movie note announces that she's a completely fictitious character. So what the movie is doing is evoking themes or visual suggestions out of the vast trove of Kennedy arcana, and mulching it into a provocative but meaningless pattern.

Anyway, what is good about "Ruby" is Aiello's evocation of a small-timer's groping when set to swim among the big dangerous fish. The bittersweet relationship with Candy Cane is also sweet and human, surprisingly noble. And the director, John McKenzie, who did "The Long Good Friday," has a feel for gangster culture: his gravely, stoic old mobsters, exuding menace and machismo, feel real.

But all this goes for nothing amid the confusion and the cheesy look-alikes who don't look much alike in key roles (the JFK guy has black hair!). And the movie never gets out of the shadows and fog of conspiracy theory. It's like reading "On the Trail of the Assassins" in Urdu.


Starring Danny Aiello.

Directed by John McKenzie.

Released by Triumph.

Rated R.


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