Billy Bathgate

1991, R, 106 min. Directed by Robert Benton. Starring Dustin Hoffman, Nicole Kidman, Loren Dean.

REVIEWED By Marc Savlov, Fri., Nov. 8, 1991

Gangster films have always been an integral part of the American cinematic landscape. From White Heat to De Palma's remake of the classic Scarface to (natch!) the epic Godfather trilogy, perhaps only the Western has grabbed hold of the collective psyche with as firm a grip as the mobster pic. In the past couple of years we've seen a veritable deluge of this type of story from out of Hollywood (and elsewhere), some of which were stunning in their audacity and others which came off as, well, not so stunning. Sorry to say, then, that Billy Bathgate falls squarely into the latter category. Loosely based on the best-seller by E.L. Doctorow, director Benton's new film follows the nearly over-the-hill exploits of mobster Dutch Schultz (Hoffman), his newly-acquired moll (Kidman), and young Billy Bathgate (Dean), a tag-along puppy of a kid who just wants to be One Of The Gang. As everyone knows by now, the shoot on Benton's film was pegged as “troubled,” but these days that's about as informative as the President's press corps. Obviously something went wrong, though. Bathgate is a stylistic stunner, with each and every scene seemingly choreographed for maximum effect. It is a beautiful film to watch, but beneath all the gorgeous, grimy Bronx exteriors and the fine acting, there's little else of substance. It's a gangster parable without much of a heart, and worse, Benton's film never seems to be able to make up its mind what it wants to be. Is it a morality tale, a la Scarface? A big-buck glorification of the mob mythos, like the recent Mobsters? What? Nobody, least of all myself, seems to be able to figure out that burning question, and therein lies the film's ruin. Again, all of the leads here -- especially Hoffman, big surprise there -- are top notch and thoroughly believable in their roles. Unfortunately, it seems no one thought out just what their roles should be.

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More Robert Benton Films
Feast of Love
Robert Benton directs this Oregon-set meditation on the permutations of love among a constellation of characters.

Marjorie Baumgarten, Oct. 5, 2007

The Human Stain
Despite some terrific moments, Philip Roth's words fail to stick to the screen.

Kimberley Jones, Nov. 14, 2003

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Billy Bathgate, Robert Benton, Dustin Hoffman, Nicole Kidman, Loren Dean

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