2 Hrs., 17 Mins.
Bugsy December 17, 2018
n Bugsy (1991), Barry Levinson’s dramatization of the life of the feared mobster Ben “Bugsy” Siegel, Warren Beatty plays the title role. He’s wrong for the part. There is simply the fact that he is too old to embody the eponymous subject: At the height of his powers, Malone was in his 30s and full of verve; in contrast, Beatty was 54 at the time of his portrayal, and, made up to look younger, comes across as a vainglorious older man trying
to obscure his age. There is also the arguable truth that Beatty cannot convince as a charming monster: the charm comes easily, but the monstrousness doesn’t. In confrontational moments that are supposed to clarify that, if you fuck with Siegel, you’ll get beaten to a pulp or worse, clear is that we are watching someone impersonating a violent man.
But perhaps Beatty is right for the part. In Bugsy do we not have a nail-tough gangster movie with a need to be called gritty: we have a romantic spectacle. Criminal life is prettied and operatic; the attention to costume and set design, which evokes Old Hollywood and then some, might be deemed “too much” even by Rouben Mamoulian. The performances evoked the presentational acting style popular nearly a century ago; decadence is a given. It's more indebted to putatively classic gangster movies, like Angels with Dirty Faces (1938) or White Heat (1949), than it is the truth.
By so comprehensively preferencing artifice over fidelity, then, does Beatty’s casting maybe fit. In a movie so loudly synthetic and orgiastic, it’s apt that a miscast box-office star be the decorative cherry. I enjoyed Bugsy, though I think it’s the emphasis on how the movie looks and feels, not what it says and does, that makes it entertaining. (That it thoroughly whitewashes or digestibly dramatizes/excises hideous real-life behavior in the name of big-budget pageantry is another story.)
The film roughly covers Siegel’s 1940s, and is mostly focused on his relationship with the Hollywood starlet Virginia Hall (Annette Bening) and his development of the Flamingo Las Vegas, a hotel and casino that still stands on the legendary namesaked boulevard. Appearances from key ancillary figures — from the pugilistic gangster Mickey Cohen (Harvey Keitel) to the National Crime Syndicate bigwigs Meyer Lansky (Ben Kingsley) and Lucky Luciano (Bill Graham) — garnish the action.
It is not especially dramatically compelling: much of Bugsy reads like a tabloid-style short you’d breeze through and then forget. The exception, then, is the relationship between Siegel and Hill, which alternates between romantic to antagonistic. Still, there's a feeling of inevitability that undercuts exigence. Even if the finer points of Malone’s life are not major parts of our cultural memory, this subject’s particular narrative arc has almost become a banality in the gangster-movie subgenre. It is not revived here. The resplendent design of the film, and Bening’s performance — which is arguably the only one in the movie that doesn’t stink of near-parody and hyperbole — are the only characteristics that help the feature at least sporadically overcome the screenplay's frequent clichés.
It is a visual and sensorial treat, to be certain. But there is a chintziness to the storytelling, as developed by James Toback (who, if you didn’t already know, has been accused, by almost 400 women, of either sexual harassment or assault since October, 2017), that does not allow for the movie to become much more than a gussied-up criminal fantasia. Sometimes the sensibility works. But in the scope of a feature with an intention to be a character-driven epic, all is ultimately rendered kind of trifling. B-