Billy Bathgate (1991)

The procession of big budget gangsters continues, with this one lumbering on screen after Godfather III, GoodFellas and Miller's Crossing, but before Mobsters and Bugsy. Although adapted from a fine novel by E.L. Doctorow and based on interesting historical characters, this mammoth production emerges as the epitome of the feel-nothing movie. It opens on a boat as Bruce Willis, an ex-close friend of hood Dutch Schultz (Dustin Hoffman), is waiting for the concrete around his feet to set before he gets tumbled into the river. There's an awkward flashback from the middle of this execution, establishing that our viewpoint character, Billy (Loren Dean), is a basically sound kid who has been caught up by the glamour of organised crime but that in the end he'll be repelled by the violence, mixed up with Willis' strange mistress (Nicole Kidman), and finally make a break from the lifestyle and opt for decency while everyone else in the cast is being gunned down.

Sadly, the film then has to go laboriously through the process that has been heavily foreshadowed by Tom Stoppard's careful but stuffy screenplay. Directed with grey facelessness by Robert Benton, the man who made Kramer Vs Kramer such a whinge, this suffers greatly from its stately pace and preserved-in-jelly period look, but its real downfall is the monotonous presence of newcomer Loren Dean in the crucial role, proving as disastrously faceless as what's-his-name in Absolute Beginners and similarly scuppering any potential audience involvement with the story or the characters.

Hoffman makes another Oscar bid by combining elements from previous screen gangsters - a little Pacino here, a little DeNiro there, a sprinkling of Cagney, a sneer of Robinson, and a pinch of Brando - to turn in an identikit of a character. Kidman makes up for her inability to play a role that, like Daisy in The Great Gatsby, is probably unplayable by stripping nude several times. There is one remarkably honest and affecting performance - by Steven Hill as Schultz's wiser sidekick - and a few of the set-pieces are carried off with flair, but on the whole it's a gloomy loser of a picture.
KIM NEWMAN

First Published In: The Good Times


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