Monday 17 March 2014

Movie Review: Billy Bathgate (1991)

An adaptation of the E.L. Doctorow novel, Billy Bathgate is crime fiction inspired by real characters. The film enjoys a stellar cast, but the story of a starry eyed teenager sucked into a mobster's inner circle receives generally superficial treatment.

In New York City of the 1930s, mobster Dutch Schultz (Dustin Hoffman) is a local hero to the street kids of the Bronx. Scrappy teenager Billy Bathgate (Loren Dean) is spotted by Dutch, and becomes an informal member of the gang. Dutch and his accountant Otto Berman (Steven Hill) are facing a range of problems, including an apparent betrayal by leading assassin Bo Weinberg (Bruce Willis), and a tax evasion charge that can threaten their criminal empire.

Dutch provides Bo with concrete shoes and drops him in the river, witnessed by Billy and Bo's flame Drew Preston (Nicole Kidman). Dutch wants Drew to become his girl, but she is aloof and independent. The gang relocates to a rural community in upstate New York to fight the tax evasion case, but Dutch's erratic and violent tendencies just add to his mounting problems. As Billy gets infatuated with Drew, rival mobster Lucky Luciano (Stanley Tucci) hovers to take advantage of Dutch's crumbling empire.

A competent but curiously unengaging film, Billy Bathgate never gets under the skin of its characters. Dutch, Drew and Billy are colourful but uninspired, behaving within limited parameters and without much depth.

Dustin Hoffman and Loren Dean are not given complex subtexts to work with, while Kidman takes Drew to a below freezing level of iciness, the moll who thinks that she can control her mobster boyfriend with an over abundance of cool. It's a magnetically mysterious turn by Kidman, but the mystery is not backed up by substance.

Ironically, the short-lived character of Bo Weinberg, as brought to life (and death) by an intense Bruce Willis, resonates more loudly than the principals.

Steven Hill as the grizzled accountant who has seen it all, and Steve Buscemi as one of Dutch's loyal gunmen, enhance the supporting cast with confident presence.

Director Robert Benton assembles a visually arresting aesthetic in recreating the New York of the 1930s, and maintains brisk pacing, bringing Billy Bathgate in at an economical 106 minutes. The film is never less than watchable, the characters making up for the absent backstories with total commitment to the cause at hand. The brief explosions of jarring violence are effective punctuation marks.

Presentably pleasing, Billy Bathgate is proficient but far from profound.

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