Once gangsters just wanted to have fun. Bullets or Bacchanalia, it was all the same to them. Sure, guys like Jimmy Cagney and Edward G. Robinson cracked a few heads and broke a few laws, but they also found time for some laughs before they paid for their transgressions with their lives.
The gangsters in "Billy Bathgate" are a different breed altogether. Grave as government accountants, with deeply furrowed brows and morose faces that have never so much as seen a smile, they make J. Edgar Hoover look like Party Animal 1. And they turn "Billy Bathgate" (countywide) into the most lugubrious of gangster films, as somber and solemn as a statesman's funeral.
Yes, this is the same "Billy Bathgate" that stars Dustin Hoffman and that the gang at Disney thought had enough audience appeal to merit a budget estimated at $40 million. Where the money went is not much of a mystery, but what is is why this picture got so bogged down in the slough of despond.
For, paradoxically, at first glance the makers of "Billy Bathgate" did everything right. They hired Hoffman to star as the dread gangster Dutch Schultz, the scourge of the Bronx and neighboring boroughs, and got Robert Benton, who began his career by co-writing "Bonnie and Clyde," to direct. They then turned to playwright Tom Stoppard to adapt E. L. Doctorow's award-winning novel, which, like "Ragtime" before it, deftly mixed the lives of real people like Schultz and his mob with fictional folk.
More than that, Stoppard's script tries to tell the story just as Doctorow did. The film opens on a dark and somber night in 1935, with Dutch and his henchmen hustling one of their own, the flamboyant Bo Weinberg (Bruce Willis) onto a tugboat. Bo is suspected of trafficking with another mob and soon finds himself with his feet quite literally encased in concrete.
Also on the boat, however, are two people who don't quite belong. One is Drew Preston (Nicole Kidman), Bo's young and beautiful society girlfriend, and the other is Billy Bathgate (Loren Dean), a Bronx kid whose wit and determined eagerness for a life of crime has made him something of an unofficial mascot for the gang.
Dutch, it turns out, has other problems besides Bo. Not only is his territory being encroached on, but various arms of the law are after him, and a suit for tax evasion is in the works. Prudence dictates a prolonged trip to the country, and, almost on a whim, he takes both Drew and Billy with him.
Yet even as all the exposition is being ever so carefully laid out, something is missing. It takes a bit of time to determine exactly what, however, because production designer Patrizia Von Brandenstein and her team of art directors, costume designers and set decorators have done an exceptional (and expensive) job of re-creating not only the look but also the very feel of 1935. This look is not just window dressing, it is a living, breathing presence. In fact, it may be the only living, breathing presence this film has.
Because in their eagerness to acquire Doctorow's novel and bring it to the screen, the filmmakers didn't stop to understand what made the book special. It does not, frankly, have a great plot, or characters who, except in the most literal way, grab you by the throat. What it does have is elegant, even poetic words, words that flow in a carefully burnished monologue from Billy Bathgate himself.
It is through Billy's fluid, poetic reminiscences that we see Dutch, Drew, Bo, the gang's numbers wizard Otto Berman (Steven Hill), even Billy himself. It is his thoughts, not their actions or even their words, that breathe life into these people, and without that spark (and with a director like Benton, whose most characteristic tone, even in "Bonnie and Clyde," is the elegiac) the film never even comes close to catching fire.
And so, despite being played by someone of Dustin Hoffman's ability, Dutch Schultz never fully engages our attention and soon drifts off into being a peripheral character, a morose senior statesman of crime as preoccupied with his own problems as any character Woody Allen ever played. Which, ready or not, leaves Drew and Billy center stage.
Frankly, they are not ready for the spotlight. Kidman looks right for the seductive, madcap Drew, and she works very hard at the role, but without a strong script to help her, she doesn't have the experience or the strength of personality to give Drew the substance she needs.
Loren Dean, whose film experience is very limited, doesn't even have the right look for Billy, the archetypal "capable boy" who must appear both younger than Dean can manage and street smart enough to become, in the book's words, "the trusted associate of one of the most deadly gangsters in the country."