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‘Billy Bathgate’

By Rita Kempley
Washington Post Staff Writer
November 01, 1991


Robert Benton
Dustin Hoffman;
Nicole Kidman;
Bruce Willis;
Steven Hill;
Loren Dean;
Steve Buscemi;
Stanley Tucci
language, violence and sex

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In the annals of crime-related entertainment, the adaptation of E.L. Doctorow's "Billy Bathgate" ranks up there with Geraldo's TV special on "The Mystery of Al Capone's Vault." When thrown open to our prying eyes, the picture, like the vault, is full of nothing but stale air. Reportedly a troubled project, it lies moribund despite Dustin Hoffman's apoplectic turn as uneven-tempered, Depression-era gangster Dutch Schultz.

Robert Benton of "Places in the Heart" directs from Tom Stoppard's screenplay, a drama that focuses not on the easily riled racketeer, but the John-Boyish dead-end kid who will ultimately witness his demise. A streetwise waif from the East Bronx, Billy (Loren Dean) idolizes Schultz and sees membership in his organization as his ticket to the good life. A pleasant, resourceful youth, he begins as floor-sweeping flunky, but quickly graduates to more important chores like baby-sitting the boss's moll (Nicole Kidman) at the Saratoga races.

Ultimately Billy's career path is complicated and his simplistic faith in gangsterism shaken when he is seduced by Kidman's comely dame. Faced with a choice between his employer -- who is having a rocky time of it during a tax audit -- and the hard-boiled beauty, Billy receives unsolicited advice and assistance from kindly numbers man Otto (Steven Hill), who has taken a liking to the kid. "Der goes a kid wid luck," says Otto, referring to Billy's knack for eluding trouble unscathed.

All this good fortune, however, makes Billy a bland antihero whose actions often have less to do with courage or conscience than pure chance. Despite his mob affiliations, he's the kind of kid who'd be more at home with Father Flannigan in "Boys Town."

Except for an ominous opening sequence in which Dutch's lieutenant (Bruce Willis) waits to die, "Billy Bathgate" is largely subdued. Perhaps to set off Dutch's sudden, brutal outbursts, all else was underplayed. It's telling that the IRS proceedings seem more erotic than Billy's love scenes. Hoffman, said to have argued with director Benton throughout filming, brings his customary professionalism to the part. But we can't get any closer to him than we can to Billy. The only character who breaks through the miasma is Hill's crusty Otto.

"Billy Bathgate" isn't an awful film, it's just an empty, terribly conventional $40 million exercise. Even the lines, such as Kidman's "I'm not his girlfriend, he's my gangster," sound secondhand. And in the wake of "GoodFellas" and "New Jack City," it feels less like a contemporary film than a Cagneyesque antique.

Billy Bathgate is rated R for language, violence and sex.

© Copyright 1999 The Washington Post Company

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