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Our mob mentality: Hank Stuever reviews HBO's 'Boardwalk Empire'

By Hank Stuever
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, September 17, 2010; C01

A friend mentioned at dinner not long ago that she didn't want to take vacations to places anymore; she wanted to take vacations in time.

Fantastic idea. Rather than look at last-minute hotel choices on Expedia.com, why not take five days off to revisit the wondrous banality of 1983, 1962, 1950?

Alas, the only way to get there is through our own nostalgia or works of vivid scholarship. But the best way, of course, is through the flat screen. That explains the popularity of "Mad Men" and a few other TV shows that will do whatever it takes to accurately re-create a moment or era or vibe, to essentially get back to where they once belonged. Success in a period piece is such a tricky thing; the details required of verisimilitude are often sacrificed to the costume party. Done right, the experience can be intoxicating.

In this way, executive producer-director Martin Scorsese and producer-writer Terence Winter (of "The Sopranos") have given HBO viewers a lavish journey to the Atlantic City of 1920 in "Boardwalk Empire" -- all expenses handsomely, even extravagantly, paid, minus your premium cable bill. They have, as literally as possible, relocated a group of actors and sets into the past, down to every last gauzy, color-rich detail, even down to the fascinating close-ups of the pages of a pristine copy of Vogue that a main character flips through while she waits in a lobby.

Premiering on an extremely proud HBO Sunday night to wild -- and almost critic-proof, frankly -- expectations, the 12-part series accomplishes everything it sets out to do. This is not to say that "Boardwalk Empire" doesn't suffer in patches. The first six episodes (which I've watched, dutifully at times) draw you in but sometimes feel overstuffed, overproduced and weirdly gauzy where the series means to be an exercise in crisp, razor-sharp filmmaking.

It all unfolds like a dream, which can have an occasional Ambien effect; in some scenes the mind drifts so subtly (looking at set details; or a beautiful buck in the woods who passes by in the edge of headlights) that you are not certain of what you were supposed to get out of what you just saw. "Boardwalk Empire" demands its viewers' attention, while insisting on viewers' reverence -- which can be an odd, even churchy, turnoff. There is such a thing as too perfect, right?

Or maybe not. Strapped to a chair and forced to choose, I'd rather have "Boardwalk Empire's" excess perfection over 90 percent of the fall TV shows in the offing.

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Steve Buscemi is nothing short of remarkable in the lead role of corrupt Atlantic City treasurer Enoch "Nucky" Thompson (a composite character drawn in part from Nelson Johnson's history book, "Boardwalk Empire: The Birth, High Times, and Corruption of Atlantic City," from which the series is adapted). Scorsese directed the first episode, and he is clearly besotted with the very idea of Nucky, who is corrupt to the bone and weaselly in intent and appearance. Buscemi's buggy eyes have never been put to better use.

Gleefully flouting Prohibition and taking a sizable cut of everything without a trace of remorse, Nucky is also a writer's dream, a tortured soul given to lingering in front of the boardwalk shopfront window where people in the 1920s paid 25 cents to look at sickly infants in incubators. ("See babies that weight less than 3 pounds!" the sign reads, just another example of the stray bits of history that pop up through "Boardwalk Empire" like lovely prizes.)

These moments of moral conflict are fleeting. And as hard as he works, Buscemi is also abused by screenplays that demand he appear in scene after scene, here and then there, huffing and puffing during a romp with his girlfriend (Paz de la Huerta) and then meeting with his goons and then helping a poor widow from the Temperance League (Kelly Macdonald), who hasn't yet figured out that Nucky is the one who had her husband killed.

Yet again, an HBO drama series announces itself on the strength of its wide array of male characters -- including Michael Pitt as Jimmy Darmody, a returned doughboy vet with a complicated relationship to Nucky; and Michael Shannon as a Prohibition agent with personal demons -- only to find that the women are the more interesting characters.

Macdonald, as the widow Margaret Schroeder, quickly emerged as my favorite character in "Boardwalk Empire," synthesizing so much thematic detail about the era's twining of idealistic teetotaling and the women's suffrage movement. Gretchen Mol is good, too, as Gillian, a nightclub dancer (and Jimmy's mother) beginning to realize she's past her prime. All of these women must of course pay the price for appearing in a boutique HBO project -- at one point or another there will come the nude scene, and as likely, the carnal bouncing while astride one of their male co-stars.

* * *

It should be noted that, in its first six parts,"Boardwalk Empire" is more about corruption itself than about organized crime; in fact, it's really more of a genesis tale about the organizing of crime, brought on by the disastrous 18th Amendment, which for 13 years prohibited making, selling and transporting alcohol. Nucky Thompson may be a composite, but "Boardwalk Empire" neatly incorporates story lines that feature Lucky Luciano, Big Jim Colosimo and a newbie Al Capone (played with creepy imbalance by Stephen Graham).

But rather than provide you a breakdown of "Boardwalk Empire's" intricate, competing story lines, it's probably more helpful to rat it out: Is this our new "Sopranos," or isn't it?

No, it is not, unless you were looking for a very special "Cotton Club" episode of that show. In fact, it may really be more of a new "Mad Men," in which Nucky, who never broods, is the opposite of Don Draper.

The rap on HBO (not from me) is that the network has come up short in its quest to replace "The Sopranos," which departed in 2007 in a singularly ambiguous moment of ordering onion rings in a diner. Elite American pop culture consumers have always had an outsize appetite for stories about the underworld of organized crime. Vampires come and go, but Vito Corleone will be with us always.

In this regard, "Boardwalk Empire" is the strongest reassertion that stories about gangsters, mobsters and other morally conflicted, dark-spirited felons in the Northeast corridor of the United States belong to a one-page list of directors, writers and even actors -- a family syndicate, if you will. Scorsese and a few others are at the top of it, even when it seems that the auteur's direction in "Boardwalk Empire's" premiere episode verges at times on parodying his own style. You mess with the list (or attempt your own mob project) at your own peril.

"Boardwalk Empire" partakes heartily in the violence and cruelty that accompany the genre. Viewers wouldn't have it any other way -- blood must spatter; Mrs. Schroeder's missing, abusive husband turns up swollen and purple in a fishing net, thanks to Nucky Thompson; displeasure in one's employees is often best expressed at point-blank range.

Fans of such shows and movies insist that what they are really interested in are interiors, not of skulls but of souls. That's what "Boardwalk Empire" ends up being most of all -- an irresistible trip back in time and also a trip into the worst realm of human nature.

Boardwalk Empire: (70-minute premiere) debuts Sunday at 9 p.m. on HBO.

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