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‘Billy Bathgate’

By Desson Howe
Washington Post Staff Writer
November 01, 1991


Robert Benton
Dustin Hoffman;
Nicole Kidman;
Bruce Willis;
Steven Hill;
Loren Dean;
Steve Buscemi;
Stanley Tucci
Under 17 restricted

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Great movies are few and far between lately. Decent, competent entertainments are in. We're talking efficiently budgeted, adequately directed products that fulfill the promises of their previews.

"Billy Bathgate" fits into this category. It takes novelist E. L. Doctorow's gangster yarn of the same name and runs with it. Or, given these mediocre times, it jogs with it. "Bathgate" is enjoyable -- no less, no more. The enjoyment comes from Dustin Hoffman's spirited Dutch Schultz, a 1930s crime lord. It also comes from Loren Dean's Billy, an East Bronx urchin who joins Schultz's mob with the wide-eyed wonder of a lad running away to the circus.

To Dean, local boy Hoffman is a legend. The diminutive gangster has a powerful hand in everything, from racetracks to numbers. When an amused Hoffman slips the kid a tip for his juggling, Dean smells an opening. With perseverance, and a lot of luck, he gets hired.

Billy proves his usefulness immediately. He discovers a piece of incriminating evidence that reveals treachery in the gang. This brings Dean into the trusted inner circle. But Dean's allegiances suffer a rupture when gangster's moll Nicole Kidman joins the tightknit mafia. Dean has promised Kidman's dying boyfriend he'll protect her. He's also falling in love with her.

Kidman proves to be very headstrong. She falls out of favor with the boss rapidly. It's a question of time before her life's in danger. Dean, who's keeping his real feelings for Kidman under wraps, has to take decisive action. He has three things going for him. He's lucky, he's smart and Hoffman likes him.

Kidman's role involves little more than undressing, sleeping late and skinny-dipping. It looks as though that's all she can handle. Bruce Willis has a brief, but effective turn as Hoffman's womanizing hit man. Steven Hill's performance as Hoffman's business manager (he's also Dean's Svengali) is subtly assured.

The real story, of course, is between the kid and the gangster. Dean is boyishly convincing as the savvy whippersnapper constantly looking over his shoulder. "People get killed when they don't stop to calculate the odds," he tells Kidman nervously.

Hoffman's performance is effortlessly good. He switches from twinkly-eyed, friendly mobster to a man of sudden, violent retribution. When an uppity fire inspector fails to pay him appropriate respect, Hoffman personally beats the man's head into a bloody pulp on the floor.

"Get this load of {expletive} out of here," he says, with almost casual annoyance. "What's next, the mailman?"

What's next is batting the popcorn kernels from your lap. Despite the shaggy dog sense of fun, "Bathgate" fades before you've left your seat. There's something just too '90s about the production. The lighting is sometimes too preciously evocative. The period costumes look like period costumes. Even though the movie was not shot on soundstages, it has that inauthentic feel to it. You may travel to another world and time, but the trouble is, you always know where your feet are.

© Copyright 1999 The Washington Post Company

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