"King of the Gypsies," opening today at area theaters, gets caught in a paralyzing bind between sordid subject matter and ridiculous casting. Ostensibly a serious, compelling melodramatic chronicle about dynastic conflict within the gypsy subculture of contemporary American, the movie resolves itself lickety-split into a laughter.
Would anyone in possession of his common sense expect make-believe gypsies as incongruous as Sterling Hayden, Shelley Winters, Susan Sarandon, Judd Hirsch, Brooke Shields, Michael V. Gazzo, Svee Scooler and Annie Potts, among others, to be taken seriously? From the opening sequence, a big gypsy gathering that turns into a free-for-all, you keep checking the sides of the frame, waiting for maybe Sid Caesar, Imogene Coca, Lucille Ball, Milton Berle, Martha Raye, Shecky Green and Charo to make their entrances and somehow rationalize the unintentional hilarity.
It's as if one had walked into a costume party where the guests were competing for gypsy disguise booby prizes. A pipe-puffing Shelley Winters, her corpulence swaddled in hand-me-down drapery, never fails to provoke a fit of giggling.Judd Hirsch, cast as the volatile offspring of Winters and Hayden (presumably substituting for an indisposed Anthony Quinn), is certainly the least authentic masquerader at the party. You want to hide your eyes from blinding embarrasment when Hirsch pretends to dance with wild abandon, then leaps onto the banquet table to wallow on the roast pig platter.
Hirsch's mournful Jewish counteenance should disqualify him for this flamboyant exertion on sight. What prompted Hirsch to try out or the filmmakers to cast him? Compared to his Groffo the Gypsy, his Delvecchio on television was every inch an Italian-American. The Italian-American gypsy branch seems to be represented by Gazzo, one of the most effective performers in "Godfather II." When Scooler, who played Duddy Kravitz's grandpa and the village rabbi in "Fiddler on the Roof," turns up, you conclude he must represent the lost gypsy tribes of Israel.
The fool's parade marches on. Susan Sarandon, affecting an accent of indefinite origin and emoting with an obtrusive earnestness that seems to expose director Frank Pierson's fundamental lack of control, becomes the bride of Groffo. They are alleged to produce two unlikely offspring: a son played by Eric Roberts, an interesting young actor who suggests a tough, sullen Robby Benson, and a daughter played by Brooke Shields, following up "Pretty Baby" with an insignificant role of only fleeting interest. The interest centers on one sequence in which she appears to be growing a moustache, a faint adornment that mercifully vanishes in subsequent scenes.
The Roberts character, called Dave Stepanowicz, is the protagonist. He narrates the story, beginning well before his birth, and the central conflict is meant to be his ambivalence about the gypsy life. In adapting Peter Maas' rambling, inconclusive non-fiction best-seller about the gypsy subculture, Pierson has tried to focus the material by recalling "The Godfather," with Dave following in the footsteps of Michael Corleone.
Several factors undercut this design. Francis Coppola cast "The Godfather" astutely from top to bottom. Michael Corleone was drawn into a criminal life out of a sense of filial loyalty that seemed tragically inescapable, given the impact of certain events - the shooting of his father and his own injury (at the hands of a character played by Sterling Hayden) while trying to shield his wounded father. Moreover, the Corleones were big-time criminals; their underworld activities and values appeared to have devastating national implications.
The characters in "King of the Gypsies" look too ill-assorted and unconvincing to suggest an authentic ethnic culture. Dave Stepanowicz is provoked by melodramatic circumstances into an act of patricide. Brutalized by his father and shamed by a childhood of shilling for his mother's bunco games, Dave runs away from home. Tribal authority is arbitrarily invested in him by his dying grandfather. Dave doesn't want it, but his father proves so homicidally jealous that the boy ends up exacting bloody vengeance within the immediate family circle.
The elements of pathos that complicated Michael's fate never enter into Dave's. Every once in a while a moment will evoke a portent of tragic destiny: When the infant Dave is baptized or the little boy aids one of his mother's swindles, one can observe Pierson laying the groundwork for a compromised life. Unfortunately, he never uncovers systematically effective portents or builds them into an irresistible dramatic pattern. As a rule the exposition ceases being ludicrous only to turn lurid and vicious.
Although Dave becomes a murderer, nothing seems to be holding him to the gypsy life when the movie fades out. Certainly not family loyalty, which he seems to scorn. Moreover, the gypsy underworld looks decidedly trivial compared to the Mafia-tawdry and incorrigible but scarcely a major source of social or institutional corruption. In short, a nuisance rather than a threat.
Maybe gypsies will feel flattered in some peculiar way, but it's difficult to perceive the appeal for anyone else. "King of the Gypsies" should do for the gypsy moviegoing public what "Jonathan Livingston Seagull" did for the bird public, i.e., assure it cinematic obscurity.