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‘Dick Tracy’

By Desson Howe
Washington Post Staff Writer
June 15, 1990


Warren Beatty
Warren Beatty;
Flenne Headly;
Al Pacino;
Dustin Hoffman;
James Caan;
Mandy Patinkin;
Paul Sorvino;
Charles Durning;
Dick Van Dyke;
R.G. Armstrong;
William Forsythe
Parental guidance suggested
Art Direction; Original Song; Makeup

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Here's why you would want to go to "Dick Tracy" which, in case you were unable to watch TV or read newspapers for the last year, is Warren Beatty's new movie, based on Chester Gould's cartoon-strip detective:

Madonna. As Breathless Mahoney, the steamy nightclub singer who makes duty-compulsive Dick Tracy think about more than his two-way wristwatch radio, she's every bit the second-rate, two-bit, one-liner-spouting vamp-tramp she's supposed to be.

"You don't know whether you want to hit or kiss me," she cooes at Tracy. "I get a lot of that."

Al Pacino. He seems to have had the most fun in the film as Big Boy Caprice, Tracy's maniacal archenemy who wants to take over this two-dimensional, cartoon city. His foam-rubbery lips make kissing noises between spat-out rantings and ravings and, like all self-important leaders, he loves to quote Other Great Men. But he does it with a certain apocryphal spin.

"A man without a plan is not a man," he asserts at one point. "Nietzsche."

The makeup. Prosthetics specialists John Caglione Jr. and Doug Drexler have painstakingly reproduced the original strip's menagerie of weird-featured criminals, including Lips Manlis, Pruneface, Influence, The Rodent, The Brow, Little Face, Flattop, Itchy and a special, faceless character known as The Blank. Look under Caglione's and Drexler's latex for actors William Forsythe, Ed O'Ross, James Caan, Henry Silva, James Tolkan and others. Warren Beatty appears not to have needed latex.

Dustin Hoffman. It's brief, but his turn as Mumbles, a hood with chronic articulation problems, is funny.

The music. Danny Elfman's score isn't something you'd want to take home with you, but it has just the right mixture of brassy heroics and murky undertones -- sort of idiotically stirring.

And now, why you wouldn't want to go:

Warren Beatty. The perfect Dick Tracy? Sure, if you also think Herve Villechaize could pull it off. Does Beatty plumb the depths of his acting talents? Sure, if you're talking about his use of the arched eyebrow, the squinty-eyed expression and the slightly dumbfounded look.

The story, or rather its absence. Hacks Jim Cash and Jack Epps must have been paid by the punchline rather than the structure. Their "Tracy" script meanders all over the place. At best, it's a blueprint for a series of confrontations.

A slow-moving, tedious subplot involves Tracy and his nuclear-family relationship with stay-at-home Tess Trueheart (the pleasant but uninvolving Glenne Headley) and a waif called The Kid (Charlie Korsmo of "Men Don't Leave"). Also, the final revelation (in which we discover a behind-the-scenes operator's true identity) is a narrative disaster. It rivals the equally dumb revelation that Kevin Costner was a Russian spy in "No Way Out."

Madonna's singing. Basically, she's out of her genre, with her tongue-clogged rendition of Stephen Sondheim's nightclub songs. One could argue that she's playing an amateurish chanteuse, but it looks as though she's going for it with all she's got -- which works better for her with pop/video songs. "I can't sing these songs," she's quoted as saying in Walt Disney's press kit. "They're too difficult."

The look. The high-priced visuals team, including "world's greatest cinematographer" Vittorio Storaro and production designer Richard Sylbert, just doesn't deliver. The deliberately two-dimensional backdrops seem to revel in self-congratulatory quotation marks and they don't blend with the real foreground scenes.

The Hollywood factor. "Tracy" is Tinseltown's annual celebration of everything that's wrong with itself: the hype, the agent-negotiated star system, the Hollywood "fun" assembly-line method of copy-cat mediocrity, etc. "Tracy" has carbon-copied almost everything from last year's "Batman" model: Beatty = Keaton, Pacino = Nicholson, Madonna = Basinger, moody/cartoonish scenery = moody/cartoonish scenery, pop Prince on the soundtrack = pop princess Madonna on same. The list goes on.

Speaking of hype, how about a new category for the Oscars: Best Hype, the prize for the most effective advertising campaign, resulting in the most anticipation. You never know: It could free up some of those Best Picture slots for worthier contenders.

© Copyright 1999 The Washington Post Company

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