1991 Directed by Barry Levinson. Starring Warren Beatty, Annette Bening, Harvey Keitel, Ben Kingsley, Elliott Gould, Joe Mantegna.
REVIEWED By Kathleen Maher, Fri., Dec. 27, 1991
The tragedy of Levinson's career is that he wants to make epics, but the source of his success is in strong characters and close-in work as we saw in Diner, Tin Men and Rain Man. Likewise, one wishes Beatty would stay out of the epic business, but in that poor man's defense, he's become too large, too much of an icon on the screen to do much else. Perhaps he's doomed to play cartoon characters as he did last time out in Dick Tracy. His Bugsy is not anything close to a fully realized character. Bening, as his starlet/moll, does a better job, but her role doesn't give her much to work with. Bugsy starts out with the gangster's arrival in Los Angeles in the 1940s, an era perfect for screenwriter James Toback's wisecracks -- unfortunately, many of them are groaners. Perhaps it's not his fault; maybe it's just too hard to go back. What is more of a problem is that it's difficult to work up any affection for these characters. Beatty is so stiff and calculated in his moves that he's never threatening when he's raging, nor attractive when he's turning on the charm. The filmmakers envisioned Bugsy Siegel as a man with a vision, a man driven to build a hotel in the desert that would become Las Vegas. Noble enough, one supposes, but it would help if the filmmakers would give us a little more to root for. We're not told so straight out, but it seems Siegel envisions his hotel, the Flamingo, as a monument to his love for Virginia Hill. As his obsession with her grows, so too do the costs for the hotel, which puts Siegel at odds with his dangerous partners Meyer Lansky, Moe Green, Charlie Luciano, etc. From our vantage point, Siegel's audacious roll of the dice looks like excess wasted on a woman that seems oblivious to the risks he's taking. Most of Bening's vaguely treacherous behavior falls under the category of “who knows what women will do.” No other motivation is given. There's no great tragedy here, only badly behaved humans. Ironically, Keitel comes closest to giving us a character to like in his portrayal of a foul-mouthed Mickey Cohen. His loyalty seems more touching than all of Bening and Beatty's hot humping around the Beverly Hills mansion. For Levinson, Beatty, and Toback this was an important roll of the dice. Looks to me like they come up craps.