Billy Bathgate

Reviewed By Chris Parry
Posted 09/12/02 11:50:44

"Compared to 'Goodfellas'... well, it doesn't even compare to 'Hoodlum'."
2 stars (Pretty Bad)

When it was made, Billy Bathgate was supposed to have cost a small fortune, but you’d never know it by looking at the screen. Was the money spent on the wages of the cast? Was it all spent in the few scenes that don’t take place in a dingy room or warehouse? Who got rich off this film, because looking at it unbiased, you’d think that it cost $12m, not $70m.

Based on a best-selling novel by E.L. Doctorow, Billy Bathgate has all the hallmarks of a great gangster thriller – a big name cast (Dustin Hoffman, Nicole Kidman, Bruce Willis), a fat budget, a loose adaptation of real-life events – yet somehow it doesn’t all come together like it should.

Dustin Hoffman plays Dutch Schultz, a mob boss in New York in the 20’s who is finding it harder and harder to maintain his stronghold over the city’s underground. Loren Dean is Billy, a young kid who finds favor with Schultz and becomes his general dogsbody – a role made more difficult than normal when he’s asked to baby-sit Dutch’s girlfriend (Kidman). A flighty wench who gets naked at the drop of a hat and seems intent on seducing the teenage Billy, this girl is nothing but trouble (and breast. And butt. And beaver).

With a host of well-portrayed sub-characters, it’s a shame that Hoffman phones it in for a role that really could have used an actor with a clue. Bruce Willis, in a small but pivotal part as the right-hand man that betrays Dutch and thus gets a pair of concrete shoes, outshines everyone else by a country mile in this affair. In Willis’ early career he was truly compelling in nearly everything he did and this is certainly no exception. Surprisingly contrasted with Hoffman, who seems to think that being loud makes you a bad guy, Willis’ exit from proceedings is early and a shame, for the Hoffman/Dean/Kidman combination that’s left isn’t nearly able to keep your attention from a slow moving story and weak dialogue.

One saving grace of the film is Steven Hill, playing Schultz’s consigliore. The former Law and Order stalwart is in fine form here, giving a big third dimension to a character that could easily have been left with two. Steve Buscemi too impresses, looking as pale as he’s ever been, as one of Dutch’s contract killers. Buscemi doesn’t say more than a few words throughout, but you can barely take your eyes off him. Also worthy of remembrance is Stanley Tucci who, as always, chews up the scenery as Lucky Luciano, again a small part. Perhaps it’s because there are so many convincing actors in small parts in this film that Hoffman’s failure becomes so apparent. Perhaps it’s because Loren Dean, in the title role, is even worse. If you’ve seen this guy in Mumford, you know exactly what his routine is. No emotion, no expression, no intonation in his voice, he’s just there. And in a big budget gangster flick, just being there isn’t enough.

Nicole Kidman gives it her all, stripping down to her birthday suit on more than once occasion. In fact, if you play the Billy Bathgate drinking game and take a shot every time Nicole Kidman gets naked, hits on Billy or ignores the person talking to her, you’ll be shit-faced by the second act. But neither that, nor the cameos, saves this from being a watchable but entirely forgettable big budget bomb.

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