A Billy-Less 'Bathgate'

It's easy to see why E. L. Doctorow's novel "Billy Bathgate" enticed Hollywood. At first glance it seems to have all the right stuff for a blockbuster both popular and prestigious: the legendary gangster Dutch Schultz; its teenage hero, Billy, who comes of age under the racketeer's murderous tutelage; a beautiful blond socialite drawn to the wild side; colorful Depression-era detail, and sex and violence presented with impeccable literary credentials. No doubt Doctorow himself was partly inspired by Hollywood gangster movies of the '30s when he wrote his tour de force. It's a boy's adventure story, told in Billy's awe-struck, highly literary voice, which conjures up a mythical vision of our outlaw urban past.

In Robert Benton's handsome, well-appointed Billy Bathgate, adapted by playwright Tom Stoppard, all the sure-fire elements are in place ... and nothing ignites. Stoppard's screenplay manages to be faithful to the book--it even starts with the tugboat scene in which Dutch (Dustin Hoffman) prepares to murder his once trusted henchman Bo Weinberg (Bruce Willis), then ducks back in time to show us how Billy (Loren Dean) first captured the attention of his mobster idol. But the events, it turns out, weren't what made this story special. It was Billy/Doctorow's singular voice. The Benton/Stoppard version never finds a point of view to substitute for it, and in transferring their title character from the first to the third person, they lose Billy Bathgate entirely. Loren Dean isn't a bad actor, but it would take an inspired one--one who radiated a lot more wily intelligence than he does-to flesh out this sketchily written part. Shorn of his language, Billy is just an amiable cipher.

Benton, a low-key charmer, has specialized in making ordinary, quirky characters magical--think of "Kramer Vs. Kramer" or "Places in the Heart." Here, given the grand opportunities of a gangster fable, he seems determined to make the vivid mundane. Nicole Kidman's Drew Preston, the thrill-seeking society wife who runs from Bo to Dutch to Billy, looks terrific but gives off peculiarly little heat: there's no sign of the tensions driving her naughty rebellion. Kidman and Dean are placed at the center of the movie, and the center doesn't hold.

Hoffman's vicious, paranoid Dutch Schultz, his criminal empire besieged on all sides, is both fearsome and pathetic, but he's hardly the mythical figure of the novel. Hoffman plays him as if he were Willy Loman's maniacal uncle. In a quiet way, it's Steven Hill's observant, protective Otto Berman, the gang's financial wizard, who leaves the deepest imprint. Tasteful, well-shot and curiously remote, "Billy Bathgate" isn't an embarrassment, but it's a puzzle. Watching it, you can't locate the passion that drew the filmmakers to it in the first place. It's a movie that somewhere along the line seems to have forgotten its point.