The mafia is an interesting subject. It has its own history, mythology, and ethics. The way we Americans picture it, it coincides with a period of endless nostalgia—the 1920’s-50’s. Hats and suits, war or the desperate need for money, and some great pop music that is dated but doesn’t make you squirm. It’s all there. That makes it ready-made for Hollywood. All that’s left is the execution (so to speak). Over and over and over again. But the expectations are high for these movies because it is so rich a premise. You have to have something to give.
Harlem 1928. Dixie Dwyer (Richard Gere) is a cornet player who happens to be in the same club as Dutch Schultz (James Remar) and sometimes singer Vera Cicero (Diane Lane). When Dixie saves Dutch from an assassination attempt, he’s in. He becomes Dutch’s man to play music, get his laundry, whatever. Vera, on the hopes of one day owning her own club, becomes Dutch’s mistress. On the strength of Dutch’s gratitude, Dixie’s brother Vinny (Nicolas Cage) gets a job as Dutch’s muscle. Meanwhile, Sandman Williams (Gregory Hines) and his brother Clay (Maurice Hines) are trying to get his start at the Cotton Club, owned by big shot Owney Madden (Bob Hoskins). Things might have been fine if Dutch wasn’t a lunatic, but he is and the action slowly revolves (and devolves) around his destructive nature.
There’s a reason why The Cotton Club (1984) hasn’t stood the test of time. There are a number of reasons. I can’t say there’s something innately wrong with a gangster movie with a strong musical presence. Dick Tracy (1990), which ruthlessly steals a scene right out of this movie (and improves upon it), is such a movie—well, maybe not with so much presence as this one. So long as it is integrated and balanced out, it can still be good. In fact, though it isn’t very well integrated, it isn’t the reason why the movie hasn’t lasted. It’s the execution of everything around it that’s middling or worse.
Writing from Francis Ford Coppola and William Kennedy is middling. The story, while promising looking at the whole, doesn’t come off in the details. If you’re going to do a movie on the mafia, it can’t be as superficial as they make it. We dip in and out of that world enough to identify the names, but it’s really just tourism. Instead, the real human drama is with the artist types. They are our tour guides to 1928-30. Dixie looks into the gangster scene while Sandman shows us race relations (along with Bumpy Rhodes (Laurence Fishburne)). But, like so many period pieces, they’ve got too many characters to cover with no desire to be brief in the dialogue.
The acting is also a little weak. Hoskins is great as is Fred Gwynne (as Madden’s friend and right hand). Fishburne isn’t bad at all. Everyone else is either a slight or large disappointment. I’m a bit of a Richard Gere fan because typically he’s understated and genuine. Here, he overplays it pretty often. It’s not jaw-droppingly bad, but it isn’t good. Cage is in that period before he started dying his eyebrows and settled on an accent. Diane Lane really just skims the surface of the part.
Oh, and will someone explain why she had the violin things on her back? That struck me as a pretty obtrusive allusion with an unclear meaning. Violon d’Ingres, I believe is the allusion, which is about a person that is famous for one thing but can do something else very well. I saw that in an episode of QI (2003-). Maybe Lane’s naked back just reminded them of the picture.
There are some simple things that go pretty badly too. The most glaring is the sound quality. It is so heavily dubbed that it sounds like a Sergio Leone movie. The cinematography is supposed to look like the old movies (or what we think old movies were like, with screenwipes and that sort of thing), and it kind of does, so that’s as good as that kind of stuff can be. But the music is great.
Francis Coppola co-writes, directs and employs a large chunk of his clan in this movie. The name Coppola shows up a number of times in the credits (and it ain’t that common a name) and Nick Cage is himself a member of the tribe.
If you want to see a movie about Dutch Schultz, you should see Billy Bathgate (1991) instead.
Trick question, which is better the DVD or the movie poster (right)?