Billy Bathgate

2 out of 5

Directed by: Robert Benton

I love reading Roger Ebert’s reviews, but I’d say it’s rare that I’m fully agreed with his takes.  I have my own, unstudied opinions on things, of course, and the elements with which we each take issue with movies would seem to differ.  I’ll often watch a movie, form my feelings on it, then say if Roger had anything to say and consider how / if it impacts my reaction.

I watched Billy Bathgate – over a few days, because it is not very interesting – and then considered how ineffectively it told its story of mobster Dutch Schultz (Dustin Hoffman) via the POV of a young, eager protege, the titular Billy (Loren Dean).  But I wondered: maybe I’m just sour on dry, vaguely-historical pieces, the movie being a semi-truthful telling of Schultz’s ties to the 30s mob scene.  This time, though, I seemed to be in line with not only the masses – the movie was poorly received, and was a flop – but also Mr. Ebert himself, who seemed to agree that the film was a characterless snooze.

It’s nice to be “right” sometimes, though that doesn’t really improve the movie.

Billy Bathgate opens with Dean’s character reluctantly hopping on to a departing tugboat, sneaking inside to witness the forthcoming cement-shoed demise of Bo (Bruce Willis), a fixer for Dutch.  Also present is Bo’s squeeze, Drew (Nicole Kidman), and when she’s escorted elsewhere onboard by Schultz, Bo presses Billy for the “how did you get here” flashback, an already lazy device that director Robert Benton refuses to dress up in any possible way.

This lack of showmanship continues throughout, as though Benton figured that historical flicks shouldn’t have such affectations; the movie – from a script by Tom Stoppard, apparently significantly changing the source material from E.L. Doctorow – is practically a checklist of rags-to-riches tales, with Bathgate hustling his way into Schultz’s presence and then getting money for a nice suit, learning the trade, falling in love with the wrong dame, etc., but doesn’t ground these events so much as dance through them.  Again, there’s the sense that affording period attire grants the movie automatic legitimacy, leaving a competent group of actors to only barely provide their roles with oomph when parading through generic sets, cliched scenarios, and predictable dialogue.  They do bring that oomph – I guess I do depart from Ebert in that I think Dean and Hoffman did good jobs with what they had – but it’s the “what they had” bit that kills it: these are line readings with only the vaguest direction of “now sound sincere;” “now sound angry.”

The structure of the flick is also pretty odd, given that we resolve the whole Bo flashback thing after about forty minutes, leaving the bulk of the movie for the what-happens-after.  This is fine, but the set up of having Billy explain the there-to-here suggests something major will occur before we get back to the ‘here,’ and that’s just not the case.  I suppose this is in line with the flick’s straight-forward presentation, though.

…And there some interesting moments threaded in to Bathgate, just from the inside-baseball perspective of seeing the inner workings of a gangster’s day-to-day hassles, and how Schultz’s quick-fire anger is quickly smoothed over by his cronies’ supporting actions.  There’s a good, dark story here and there, and in a movie more concerned with telling that story than playing dress-up cops-and-robbers, it could have turned in to something more suited to its big name cast.