The Man Who Viewed Too Much
3 March 1997

Donnie Brasco

Directed by Mike Newell
Written by Paul Attanasio
Adapted from the memoir Donnie Brasco: My Undercover Life in the Mafia by Joseph Pistone (with Richard Woodley)
Rating: ***

Hard Eight

Written and directed by Paul Thomas Anderson
Rating: ** ½

Ratings are on a four-star scale

Ah, the undercover cop flick. Few movie situations, for my money, are as inherently satisfying as that in which our man in blue risks life and limb to infiltrate the nest o' evil; not only is there conflict and danger galore, but the hero's predicament is more or less automatically a metaphor for the trials and tribulations of being an actor. No matter how hard you may try to make a cheap, sleazy, exploitative, totally unredeemable piece of direct-to-video crap, you will inevitably find that your undercover-cop saga sports, oh dear, a genuine subtext. (Only Quentin Tarantino, to the best of my knowledge, has dared to make the metaphor an overt one, with Reservoir Dogs' Tim Roth actually memorizing a killer monologue and subsequently auditioning it for his superior.) I may not like a given film in the genre, but I can't remember the last time I was actively bored by one.

In Donnie Brasco, a new entry directed by, of all people, Mike "gentle British pastoral" Newell (Enchanted April, Four Weddings and a Funeral, Into the West), Johnny Depp is Joe Pistone, aka Donnie Brasco, a real-life FBI man who worked his way so far into the mob a decade and a half ago that he managed to secure indictments for more than a hundred of New York's most notorious hoodlums, and miraculously escaped with all of his body parts intact. (The film is based on his memoir, and he's credited as a consultant, I think.) His "sponsor" -- and that's the only word that seems appropriate, as silly as it sounds -- is "Lefty" Ruggiero, played by Al Pacino...who, in his introductory scene, appears to be the kind of cool, confident, worldly-wise wiseguy that you'd expect somebody of Pacino's stature to play. One of the movie's best ideas (I have no idea whether or not it's based on reality) is that this a front: Lefty is a loser, a fourth-rate mafioso who lives in a ratty apartment and is forever asking his young protégé to loan him a few bucks; whatever illicit cash he "earns" as a hit man is quickly squandered at the track. Hanging out with young, eager-to-please Donnie makes him feel important, an elder statesman, and he never seems as alive as when he's solemnly imparting kernels of Mob wisdom...most of which, and I'll return to this in a moment, recur, freighted with meaning, later in the film. He's a great character, and Pacino, whose recent work has been a bit hammy (is it too late to rescind his Scent of a Woman Oscar and give it to Denzel Washington, its rightful owner?), plays him with admirable restraint and a dead-on sense of weary, resigned dignity. Depp, whose work as an actor is sadly underrated by just about everybody, myself included, is equally fine in a much-needed change-of-pace role as an adult with recognizable human behavior patterns and emotions; it's neither his fault nor Anne Heche's that the two of them are required to waste their talent and time acting out several tedious marital spats in an unusually well-developed but nonetheless boring "it's-my-job"/"but-it's-tearing-us-apart" subplot.

Donnie Brasco is a Good Movie that could have been a Very Good Movie Indeed, if perhaps not a Fuckin' Great Movie. What prevents it from achieving VGMI status is a problem endemic in studio filmmaking these days: the people who made it don't trust their audience to think. Paul Attanasio has a good ear for dialogue and a strong narrative sense, but subtlety isn't his forte -- look, for example, at the painfully metaphorical opening scene of Quiz Show, which might as well feature a stentorian voiceover intoning "This is a story of the death of American innocence." Brasco suffers from many of the same weaknesses as that accomplished but nonetheless overrated film: key moments are underlined to death or clumsily foreshadowed; character motivations and thematic ideas are spelled out as if in a grade-school primer (Maggie Pistone to Joe: "You're becoming just like them!" -- I mean, thank christ this line was included, because otherwise we never would have noticed that in a million years); everything of importance is said three times, for the benefit of cretins and those paying less than the strictest attention. Because the actors are so skilled, and because folks like Newell and Attanasio are considerably less crass than most of the hacks toiling in Hollywood, the repetition and the sledgehammer nudges are only minor irritations, speed bumps rather than stop signs, but it's mildly depressing to consider how much sharper and more memorable the film might have been without them.

"An example," I like to imagine that I hear you clamoring, "give us an example!" Hey, I'm only too happy to oblige. (This example, I should warn you, is potentially problematic for those of you who haven't seen the film and plan to; while it doesn't reveal any significant plot surprises [once you know that Brasco is a Fed -- a "secret" that Newell & Co. aren't terribly interested in keeping -- there really aren't any other mysteries], it does require me to recount one of the picture's best and most arresting scenes, in order to demonstrate how a simple alteration could have made it a true classic. If you'd rather experience the scene firsthand before having it synopsized for you, I suggest you hit the 'Back' button on your browser now.)

Okay. So Brasco is schmoozing with the wiseguys, working his way closer and closer to the inner circle, alienating his family, undergoing an existential crisis -- all that good undercover stuff. One afternoon, the crew heads to a Japanese restaurant for lunch, having heard that Japanese cuisine is now the rage (remember, this is taking place in the late '70s and early '80s). As they enter, a friendly Japanese maître d', which I realize is a linguistic contradiction but who cares, requests that they kindly respect Japanese tradition by removing their shoes before sitting down. Amused in a very condescending way, the group obliges...except for Brasco. Their host apologetically informs Donnie that it's a rule, no exceptions -- still no go. Michael Madsen, playing the badass honcho, tells Brasco to get the boots off before he saws off his feet, or words to that effect. Brasco angrily replies that his father had been killed by a Jap in World War II, and no fuckin' Jap is gonna tell him what the hell he can or can't wear, and he'll leave before he so much as unties a shoelace. Madsen then informs their host that Mr. Brasco will be dining shod; when the maître d' holds his ground, the mobsters drag him forcibly into the men's room and proceed to kick the living shit out of him. Brasco, who initially seems horrified by the beating, eventually takes part in it himself. Later that evening, we see him remove a small tape recorder and microphone from one of his oversized boots.

Pretty exciting stuff, and my dry synopsis doesn't even begin to capture the tension and anxiety that permeates the scene onscreen. But what I neglected to mention is that it's preceded -- perhaps directly, my memory is hazy -- by an FBI-at-work montage in which, among other related shots, we actually see Brasco removing the tape recorder from his boot. You might argue that the scene is more powerful if we know in advance that Donnie's cover might be blown, citing Hitchcock's famous "bomb under the table" definition of suspense, and I wouldn't argue; my point is that anyone with half a brain is going to realize, almost immediately, what's going on, and the cranium-impaired or temporarily dense will merely be pleasantly surprised when the explanation is revealed. Cuing us in advance, even in a quick, uninflected shot (I'm half-surprised that some Federal stooge didn't come right out and say "Whatever you do, Joe, don't remove your boots when the Mafia dudes are around, okay?"), is downright insulting. It's also counterproductive; when I was watching the scene, part of me was involved in the drama, but another part of me was annoyed at the filmmakers for treating me like a moron, and that's the part of my brain that usually ends up winning the post-film arguments, and writing the reviews. As you can see, I've spent two paragraphs griping about this error in judgment; imagine how many people saved themselves the effort by simply not recommending the movie to friends and relations. Are you listening, Hollywood decision-makers? Insulting the audience's intelligence is not good business! You'll lose money! Your stockholders will -- why are you waving that copy of Twister in my face? What are you driving at?

All of this carping notwithstanding, Donnie Brasco, by and large, succeeds. It's not the classic I had hoped for, but it moves at a good clip, the cast is dynamite, the period is perfectly realized (and the choice of source music is inspired; instead of the "respectable" hits of the day, or the offbeat tunes Tarantino might have selected, we hear shlock like Neil Diamond's "Love on the Rocks" -- songs that were really, however inexplicably, getting massive airplay back then), and, you know, it's an undercover cop flick. There are small details throughout that are quietly effective, such as a scene, beautifully underplayed, in which Madsen tries to hold a meeting in one room while Pacino hammers endlessly at a stolen parking meter in another. And Pacino's final scene is an elegiac, wordless marvel...though, again, it would have been even more moving had Newell and Attanasio not chosen to telegraph it (twice, in fact).

Critics like to pretend that it isn't so, but the fact is that any number of variables that have nothing to do with the quality of a given movie can affect a viewer's opinion of it; and so, because I endeavor to keep nothing from you, I feel obliged to add that my enjoyment of Donnie Brasco was tempered somewhat by the audience with which I saw it -- a mean-spirited, ugly crowd that cheered every act of violence as if it were a touchdown or home run. In one of the film's numerous, endless marital squabbles, Brasco strikes his wife in the face, prompting my fellows in the theater (the ratio of men to women was, predictably, about 5:1) to give him what very nearly amounted to a standing ovation. While I'm fully aware that nobody involved with Donnie Brasco intended or hoped for this twisted response, it still made me decisively queasy, and I was in a foul, disgusted mood as I walked home.

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Editor's Note: There will be no -- repeat, no -- gambling metaphors in this review. And that's a promise.

When I first heard about Paul Thomas Anderson's debut film, Hard Eight, several months ago, I was informed that its stars were Gwyneth Paltrow and Samuel L. Jackson. This, like so much of the buzz film buffs encounter, turned out to be both true and false, in a way that flirts with flat-out prevarication. Yes, Jackson and Paltrow are the film's stars, in the sense that they're the only cast members who've been featured on magazine covers; but the two lead roles are played by two of the many fine actors lurking at the fringes of public awareness: Philip Baker Hall and John C. Reilly. If you've glanced at the ads, odds are you've wondered where you've seen one or both of their faces before. If you see Hard Eight, I doubt you'll forget their names anytime soon. Unfortunately, they're pretty much the only reason that Anderson's intriguing but ultimately unsatisying movie might be worth your time.

Hall, who's best known for playing Nixon in Altman's Secret Honor but has also appeared in a slew of lousy pictures ranging from Ghostbusters II to the recent remake of Kiss of Death, is given one of those mysterioso introductions in which we don't see the character's face for a few minutes: as the camera tracks at a moderate pace toward an apparently homeless man, hunched glumly in front of a diner on an overcast afternoon, Hall strides purposefully in step, half-in and half-out of the frame, his back to the lens. The man in front of the diner is squatting, and the shot is composed at his eye-level, so we can't even see the back of Hall's head -- just occasional glimpses of his jacket and his trousers. Even when the movement ceases, and Hall speaks to the man, inviting him to join him inside for a cup of coffee, he remains invisible, an almost-disembodied, pleasantly urbane voice. Only when Anderson cuts to the booth the two share do we finally see the weathered, kindly, sympathetic man -- Sidney is his name -- who's offering, for no apparent reason, to give this down-and-outer a lift to Reno and teach him a few tricks of the gambling trade.

For a while, Hard Eight looks as though it's going to be a less ostentatious version of the first (and by far the most compelling) hour of Scorsese's Casino, told from the point of view of the hustler rather than the operator. The younger man, John, played by Reilly (The River Wild, Dolores Claiborne, Georgia -- you've seen him before, trust me), claims he needs cash to bury his beloved mother, and we tend to believe him -- he's so painfully, excruciatingly sincere that he's either on the level or the greatest con artist in the history of the movies. Sid knows the casino ropes, it seems, and though he flatly tells John not to bother dreaming of winning the sum required for the funeral, he's willing to help him bilk the management to the tune of a free room and complimentary tickets to a revue. This, he explains in a patient, confident tone, is what you do...

The scam, which is complex enough to require careful attention on the part of the viewer, is depicted in considerable detail, and we naturally expect to encounter more elaborate cons as the picture progresses. A less stylized, more accessible House of Games, perhaps, may be what Anderson has in mind. But just when the tale seems to be clicking into gear, a truly bizarre thing happens: the screen fades to black, and the words "Two years later" are superimposed. I don't recall ever being caught quite so off guard by an ellipsis in time; if you'd stopped the projector a few minutes earlier and asked me, based on what I'd seen so far, what I imagined to be the likely duration of the remaining events, I'd've guessed maybe two or three weeks, tops. I dig being thrown for a loop, as a general rule, so I resisted the impulse to cackle aloud and settled into my seat. Bring it on, whatever it is.

But here'ís the rub: it isn't much. Hard Eight is like a horror movie that milks every drop of suspense possible by keeping its bogeyman hidden in the shadows for most of the picture, and then, in the last reel, unveils an underpaid guy in an ill-fitting rubber suit, emitting a weak, plaintive growl o' terror that might be roughly translated as "I don't even get benefits, what do you want from me?" From the opening scene in the diner, one question informs, distorts, permeates everything we see onscreen: What, exactly, is Sidney's game? What does he get out of this transaction? He must want something -- what is that thing? (No, wiseass, those aren't three questions; it's the same question worded three different ways for emphasis. Nice try, though.) Anderson withholds the answer for a long, long, long, long time, and when it's finally blurted out, it's the very definition of anticlimactic; I didn't guess it in advance, it's true, but then I would have never have expected anyone to construct an entire feature from so flimsy a premise. The moment the information is revealed, Hard Eight collapses like are those things that collapse again? Unwieldy structures, prone to topple, a handy metaphor -- help me out here. Some long-forgotten Kathleen Turner movie is invading my brain, that's not helping, what's up with that? Collapses like a...geez, it's right on the tip of my tongue...

Anderson would have been better off laying his cards on the table from the get-go, as it happens, because Hall and Reilly are strong enough to carry Hard Eight on their own. These actors don't need the promise of a gimmicky plot revelation to maintain our interest, and the relationship between Sidney and John, which is much too opaque, would have been far more interesting had we known from the outset, or fairly close to it, what the deal was. Hall is getting more press, and he's terrific, but it was Reilly, as befuddled, anxious John, who blew me away; without a trace of vanity, he commits himself fully to the role of an utterly unglamorous, uncharismatic loser, and every move he makes feels completely authentic. His is the first of what I expect to be a depressingly long list of first-rate performances that have exactly zero chance of being recognized by Academy voters or critics' groups come January '98.

Oh, yeah, Gwyneth Paltrow and Samuel L. Jackson are in it, too. They're both okay.

Editor's Note: So sue me.

I'm taking the week of 10 March off.
Coming 17 March (in all likelihood): Private Parts, Rhyme & Reason, Rosewood, The Watermelon Woman