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MOVIE REVIEW

Back Room Lessons : 'City Hall' Focuses on N.Y.C. Politics, Scandals and Ethical Dilemmas

February 16, 1996|KENNETH TURAN | TIMES FILM CRITIC

"City Hall" is inside information in search of a movie, a forced marriage between the trappings of reality and the fantasy of a jerry-built plot. Reasonably intelligent, neither offensive nor enticing, it passes its time on the screen without providing compelling reasons for audiences to either go or stay.

Starring Al Pacino as Mayor John Pappas and directed by Harold Becker in his best Sidney Lumet knockoff style, "City Hall" is another "ain't N.Y.C. swell" movie, where characters can be counted on to offer hard-earned wisdom like "If you're willing to be lucky, New York will give you a chance." That and $1.50 will get you on the subway.

A mildly interesting story of ethics in city government and moral lines that shouldn't be crossed, "City Hall" started with a script by Ken Lipper, a deputy mayor in the Ed Koch administration.

Lipper has likely had a hand in the nominal realism of the film's political ambience, which includes jokes about brisket and generous amounts of Yiddish, as well as its insights into the wheeling and dealing that characterizes big-time urban administrations.

Something must have been amiss, however, because following Lipper on the script and in the credits were a high-powered trio of screenwriters, Paul Schrader, Nicholas Pileggi and Bo Goldman. All this talent may have done no more than get in each other's way, because what's on the screen is over-complicated and unconvincing.

Also unreal, despite Pacino's efforts, is Mayor Pappas, a theoretically heroic chief executive. Decent and caring, someone who hugs people as if he means it, believes "a man's life is not the bricks, it's the mortar" and makes passionate off-the-cuff speeches at funerals, Pappas is such a paragon for so long it's difficult to take him seriously as a real character and his ultimate fate cannot touch us.

Supposedly adding the human element is deputy mayor Kevin Calhoun (John Cusack), a clever political operative whose job consists of running political errands and whispering in the mayor's ear. Inexplicably from Louisiana, which leads to instructions to "get the gumbo out of your Yiddish," Cusack's policy-wonk-who-needs-wising-up character also feels overly familiar, though the actor's core watchability is a considerable advantage here.

What sets "City Hall's" plot in motion is a shootout on a Brooklyn street corner between a tough cop and a small-time drug dealer who happens to be related to a Mafia heavy.

Both men die, and, hit by a stray bullet, so does a 6-year-old child on his way to school, which gets local journalists into an uproar. Soon they are asking impertinent questions touching on the ethics of the judge (Martin Landau) who let the dealer off with probation and the Brooklyn political boss (Danny Aiello) who is too friendly with too many suspicious characters.

While some of "City Hall's" insider antics are involving, others--like a deal between the mayor and the boss cut in a theater lobby--are so site-specific in language and nuance, it's anyone's guess who is trading what and why.

At other times the film is hampered by the make-work nature of its plot. This is especially the case with Marybeth Cogan, played by Bridget Fonda. Introduced as an attorney for the Detectives Endowment Association, whatever that is, Cogan exists only because a female character seemed necessary, and she appears and disappears in an unfortunately schematic manner.

Though it doesn't help as much as it should, "City Hall" is thankfully restrained and underplayed in its acting. It seems to know what goes on behind closed doors, but unless you're a die-hard New Yorker who tears up at the very mention of Fiorello LaGuardia, verisimilitude and atmosphere are inadequate covers for a cooked-up-to-order plot.

* MPAA rating: R, for language and some violence. Times guidelines: a brief, standard shootout.

'City Hall'

Al Pacino: Mayor Tom Pappas

John Cusack: Kevin Calhoun

Bridget Fonda: Marybeth Cogan

Danny Aiello: Frank Anselmo

Martin Landau: Judge Walter Stern

David Paymer: Abe Goodman

Tony Franciosa: Paul Zapatti

Castle Rock Entertainment presents a Edward R. Pressman/Ken Lipper production, released by Columbia Pictures. Director Harold Becker. Producers Edward R. Pressman, Ken Lipper, Charles Mulvehill, Harold Becker. Screenplay Ken Lipper and Paul Schrader & Nicholas Pileggi and Bo Goldman. Cinematographer Michael Seresin. Editor Robert C. Jones, David Bretherton. Costumes Richard Hornung. Music Jerry Goldsmith. Production design Jane Musky. Art director Robert Guerra. Set decorator Robert J. Franco. Running time: 1 hour, 51 minutes.

* In general release throughout Southern California.

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