Ty Burr
April 01, 1994 AT 05:00 AM EST

New-to-video movies from Scorsese and De Niro

There was a pretty good Martin Scorsese movie that came out in 1993, but it wasn’t The Age of Innocence. In fact, it wasn’t even directed by Scorsese. It was A Bronx Tale, and it marked the directing debut of an actor who has often seemed Scorsese’s on-screen alter ego: Robert De Niro. Supple, unpretentious, and loaded with mean-streets bravado, A Bronx Tale looks as if it’ll become a word-of-mouth favorite, while his mentor’s white elephant lies unrented on the shelves.

I doubt there was a 1993 movie more overpraised and overhyped than Age of Innocence. (Well, maybe The Piano, but at least that one delivers.) Watching Scorsese’s luxuriant, static Edith Wharton adaptation in a movie theater, I couldn’t help feeling that this particular emperor had no clothes. Seeing it a second time, on video, clears it up: The film’s just shy of a disaster. Visual flourishes that seemed operatic on the big screen look overbaked and silly on the small; Joanne Woodward’s mind-numbing narration — Wharton minus the wit — seems to land with a heavier thud (you tune it out after 20 minutes). As for the characters, they’re waxier than ever. How Scorsese managed to make Daniel Day-Lewis, Winona Ryder (yeah, she deserves an Oscar, but for 1989’s Heathers), and Michelle Pfeiffer devoid of interest is beyond this writer.

Is it possible to make a compelling costume drama about uptight people? Of course it is: When James Ivory is firing on all cylinders — as with Howards End — the battle between propriety and passion can seem downright exciting. The classic director Max Ophuls (The Earrings of Madame De…) made a career of mining tragedy out of shallow, shiny people. But Age is about characters so emotionally constipated that they register only as shadows. The well-to-do New York lawyer Newland Archer (Day-Lewis) is engaged to the vacuous May Welland (Ryder) and cannot begin to express — even to himself — his love for the mildly scandalous Countess Olenska (Pfeiffer). Because Newland is tongue-tied, you need a voice to explain his predicament, but Wharton’s voice, that weapon of grace, just doesn’t come through.

That’s because Scorsese is too busy showing off the furniture. He understands Wharton’s point that these people can express themselves only through what they own — their clothes and carriages, all the accretions of entitlement. Boy, does he understand it. He belabors it, in fact, to the point where decor becomes his fetish as much as theirs. Fashioning a film in which nothing happens — a film about nothing happening — becomes a perverse act, as beautiful and pointless as that incredible overhead shot of the ballroom dancers.

Not much happens in A Bronx Tale, either: A kid named Calogero, or ”C” (played by Francis Capra as a child and Lillo Brancato as a teenager), grows up during the doo-wop years and is torn between Sonny, a charismatic local mobster (Chazz Palminteri, who also wrote the screenplay based on his play), and Lorenzo, C’s stern bus-driver dad (De Niro). The characters are as inarticulate as those in Age of Innocence (except for Sonny — expressiveness is his allure). Yet the movie is pocked with occurrence. Small happenstances are revealed to us as if from the corner of the director’s eye: the secret signals of the wiseguys; a rollicking game of craps in a basement; the neighborhoods changing through the windows of Lorenzo’s bus while C sees the girl of his dreams (Taral Hicks) three rows back and so what if she’s the wrong color?

De Niro has obviously picked up techniques from Scorsese; how could he help it? An opening scene introducing us to the goombahs of the Chez Bippy social club — Frankie Coffeecake, Tony Toupee — is a straight lift from GoodFellas. Two street rumbles are filmed with a souped-up urgency that recalls Scorsese’s camera moves. And the honking, profane Noo-Yawkese of A Bronx Tale is a clear echo of Mean Streets and its descendants.

There are differences, though, not least in the area of sentiment. Scorsese has never been big on ”heart” as movies traditionally understand it. Think of GoodFellas, whose main flaw (some felt) was the neutrality with which it viewed its dim, fractious gangsters. De Niro seems at this early stage to be a less complex director, and A Bronx Tale emerges from the rich observations of its first hour into an emotional but awkwardly predictable morality play. In a way, the hero’s eventual choice resonates back behind the camera. C becomes his own man when he rejects Sonny’s tough-guy mantra, ”Nobody cares.” Likewise, for De Niro to come into his own as a director he may have to jettison the aesthete’s detachment that can make a Martin Scorsese movie great — or that can cripple it. With A Bronx Tale, he’s deciding whether to get involved. The Age of Innocence: C-; A Bronx Tale: B

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