Monday, December 26, 2005


From the Vault: Billy Bathgate

Fans of books often become hypercritical when it comes to screen adaptations and this will likely be the case with Billy Bathgate, which takes a decent stab at filming E.L. Doctorow's best seller but loses its way.

The book is another typical Doctorow blending of fact and fiction. Its cast of characters is much smaller than in Ragtime, but the same intent is there: evoking a time and place in American history. Director Robert Benton and writer Tom Stoppard's film falters on this key point. Instead of visualizing the novel's historical mood, their concentration on the novel's story and structure leads them astray.

The book details the experiences of 15-year-old Billy (Loren Dean in the film). While his age is an issue in the novel, it never comes up in the movie as he finds himself initiated into the world of gangster Dutch Schultz (Dustin Hoffman), whose power is waning. Doctorow used this story to chronicle the fall of the self-made Schultz, who found crime to be a way to pull himself out of the gutter before he fell to the ambition of immigrants who took over his rackets.

Along the way, Doctorow firmly established the time's feel and the influence of other well-known figures such as Thomas Dewey. The film's structure follows that of the novel, beginning with a scene and the flashing back, moving forward, flashing back again and then sprinting to the story's end. That structure though doesn't translate well to the screen.

As the movie starts, Benton establishes everything fairly well, hitting the little points as well as the big ones, but at some point he and Stoppard must have realized that if they followed that course they'd have a four-hour film so they speed toward the conclusion. As a result, plot points get muddied along with the characters, though a couple of good performances survive.

Nicole Kidman is quite alluring as Drew Preston, the girlfriend of one of Dutch's men who becomes lover to both Schultz and Billy. However, the acting standout is Steven Hill as Abbadaba Berman, Dutch's right-hand man and a wizard with numbers. In many ways, the book concentrated more on the relationship between Berman and Billy and the film might have been wise to follow suit.

The usually reliable Hoffman disappoints here. It may stem from the fact that the book is seen entirely through Billy's eyes and Bathgate never quite sees the real person in Dutch, but Hoffman doesn't really create one for the film either. There's a distinct lack of charisma for someone who made such a success of himself, even if was in an illegal field.

Dean plays Billy adequately, but his character observes the action more than he participates in it, so there's little room for a performance. The worst casting belongs to Bruce Willis as Bo Weinberg, Drew's boyfriend whom Dutch murders.

The musical score proves quite good some of the time, but then seems equally awful in other parts, particularly in the scenes between Drew and Billy. Billy Bathgate ends up as lifeless as one of Schultz's victims and the failure to reinvent the story for the screen winds up being fatal.

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