City of Hope, the heady new film from John Sayles, is, on one level, an enthralling stunt. The movie, which is set in the fictional metropolis of Hudson City, N.J. (it was actually shot in Cincinnati), presents an outrageously vast panorama of contemporary urban life. There are 36 characters, and their stories are meticulously interlocked, like the lines in a crossword puzzle. Sayles has often displayed an ambition that outstripped his technique. Here, his writing and directing are so forceful, so pungent and alive, that it's easy to enjoy the film simply as an ingeniously controlled narrative machine.
At the same time, City of Hope has a scraped-from-the-headlines urgency that has all but disappeared from American movies. Sayles takes us into courtrooms and bedrooms, construction sites and funeral parlors, bars and town meetings. He shows us the routine corruption at City Hall, and then he penetrates beneath the surface, revealing how the favors and kickbacks, the institutionalized selfishness and desperation, come trickling down to the level on which people actually live.
Nick (Vincent Spano), the nominal hero, is an aimless, screw-the-future sort of guy who quits his ''no-show'' construction job because he's bored and also because he hates the idea that he got the job through the patronage of his father (Tony Lo Bianco), a successful contractor and slumlord. ''I want to be my own boss,'' says Nick. But the joke is on him, since City of Hope unveils a society in which no one, regardless of how high up, has any true autonomy.
The movie immerses us in half a dozen other plots. Nick's father is being pressured by the city to tear down a block of inner-city buildings. He knows that this means kicking the residents out into the street. Yet his livelihood depends on bending to the whims of the mayor (Louis Zorich), and so he takes the most expedient route possible: He hires a local ''fixer'' (played by Sayles) to commit arson. Desmond (Jojo Smollett) and Tito (Eddie Townsend) are inner-city black teenagers who, after being pushed around by racist cops, vent their anger by mugging a white jogger (Bill Raymond). When they're arrested, the case turns into a small media circus, with one of the two boys enmeshing himself in the lie that the jogger made sexual advances. Sayles wipes away any hint of piety. He shows us the hideousness of casual racism and the cycle of hate it fosters without turning the boys into noble victims.
City of Hope is structured as a moral demonstration, a neo-Marxist Xray into the workings of a modern urban-bureaucratic maze. Sayles' sympathy is clearly with the lower-middle-class and the down-and-out. Yet he's also attacking the entrenched governmental layers the liberal layers that have bred corruption and malaise. What's cleansing about the movie is that it's a cry of despair that never sinks into cynicism. Sayles, like Robert Altman in Nashville, loves his characters as individuals. He knows they're caught in a world they didn't make, a world so rank with compromise that the very idea of walking around untainted may be little more than a sentimental indulgence. Nevertheless, he reveals possibilities for courage and humanity. At a local bar, Nick runs into Angela (Barbara Williams), whom he knew vaguely in high school. He's smitten with her glamorous, angular beauty Williams, a real find, suggests a rough-and-tumble Julia Roberts yet his macho-charm routine is like something out of a bad old movie. Angela, who's divorced, spends most of her energy caring for her mildly disabled young son. Nick comes on like he wants a relationship, but is he mature enough to desire a true human connection?
As Nick is searching to find a place for himself, Wynn (Joe Morton), a smart, idealistic black city councilman, is straddling two worlds. To get anywhere, he has to work within the white power structure. Yet this automatically brands him a sellout in the eyes of many of those he represents. As the movie goes on, Wynn is drawn into the center of the mugging case it's like a mini Bonfire of the Vanities and his dilemma becomes: How can he be a practical politician and, at the same time, a trusted leader of his people? In the movie's most inspiring scene, Wynn, standing before a small roomful of his constituents, finally grasps the way to channel his passion, and we feel like we're witnessing the birth of true political wisdom.
There are many other characters, from a local Irish don (Lawrence Tierney) to a schizophrenic homeless man (David Strathairn) who repeats everything he hears (Sayles uses him brilliantly in the haunting final scene). City of Hope is a ceaseless, two-hour rush of plot and information. At times, it's almost exhausting, because there are no real high points (or low points). Sayles, trying to conform to a rigorously democratic vision, orchestrates the movie so that every scene has essentially the same dramatic value. Yet as City of Hope unfolded, I felt grateful for its richness and breadth, and for Sayles' dramatic invention. Over the years, this maverick writer-director has often been self-righteous about the fact that he works outside the commercial American film industry. Many of his movies, like The Brother From Another Planet (1984) and Matewan (1987), have been mired in the dreariness of ''good intentions.'' Now, for the first time since his superb 1983 romantic comedy, Baby, It's You ironically, one of the two films he made for a major studio Sayles reclaims his savvy as both artist and entertainer. City of Hope reminds you that that needn't be a contradiction. A