Billy Bathgate, an adaptation of E.L. Doctorow's 1988 gangster novel, poses the question: How can a movie be smooth, tasteful, competently acted, handsomely photographed and dull? The book posed a similar question. I'm a Doctorow fan, but I couldn't get through Billy Bathgate: The characters the legendary hoodlum Dutch Schultz, his teenage protégé Billy Bathgate, the alluring Drew Preston, who comes between them were so thin and archetypal, so knowingly ''old-fashioned,'' that they had no life on the page. The book was like a piece of self-conscious Damon Runyon pulp rendered in elegant, musical prose (even on his sleepiest day, Doctorow's sentences sing). It seemed rooted less in experience than in clichés from old movies.
In the film version, director Robert Benton (Kramer vs. Kramer) doesn't commit any major mishaps; he remains lovingly faithful to the book. Yet because of the inevitable streamlining that results from trying to cram a novel onto the screen, Doctorow's deliberately quaint, period-piece narrative comes off as even more secondhand than before.
At the beginning, Billy (Loren Dean), a Depression-era scamp from the East Bronx, ingratiates himself into Dutch's good graces, becoming his errand boy and walking good-luck charm. Billy, like the hero of GoodFellas, idolizes gangsters for their money, power, and charismatic fearlessness. Yet he's also presented as a conventionally clean-souled American boy, an eager achiever. As played by the blandly good-looking stage actor Loren Dean, who's like Matthew Modine's shining-eyed little brother, Billy has no lust, no appetite, no hidden darkness. He seems more interested in getting Dutch to like him than he does in actually being a gangster. (It's as if he thought joining a gang of numbers runners was what came after Eagle Scouts.) Dean's performance amounts to one prolonged, gawky stare. He's the hero, but he seems more like...well, an errand boy.
If Billy is too much of a straight-arrow, then surely Dutch is meant to be a mesmerizing monster. Hoffman plays him as as rude, grabby, ill-tempered lowlife, a Cagneyesque runt given to spasms of violence. He has his moments like angrily slapping a coffee cup out of Billy's hands but, overall, it's a surprisingly underimagined turn from Hoffman. The character is believable as a garishly self-absorbed thug, but to occupy center stage as much as he does, he needed a few more kinks, his amoral drive pushed even further into comedy or scary mayhem.
The movie catches Dutch on the decline, as he struggles to beat an income tax-evasion rap by moving his gang to the small town of Onondaga, N.Y. He figures he'll pass himself off as a pillar of the community, have his trial there, and get off scot-free. Meanwhile, Billy is assigned to look after Drew (Nicole Kidman), the former girlfriend of Bo Weinberg (Bruce Willis), a gang member who has been bumped off by Dutch for betrayal. Billy and Drew fall for each other. Or is she just manipulating him because she needs a savior?
The story sounds promising, yet there's a joyless, dutiful air to everything that happens. Why isn't Dutch's residence in Onondaga played as rollicking farce? As it stands, no one in town even emerges as a character. And where's the passion in these relationships? Billy and Drew seem like high schoolers going to the prom; the bond between Billy and Dutch is barely there; and one crucial point from the book gets virtually lost that Dutch, after knocking off Bo, has made Drew his moll. The only actors with any spark are on the sidelines: Steven Hill, who plays the veteran numbers whiz Otto Berman with a dry, wised-up melancholy, and Willis, who brings a charge of bravado and fear to his few scenes.
Maybe it's time to declare a moratorium on gangster films. Americans have always responded to the vicarious thrill of crime, especially in fiction. It could be argued that the first great modern American movie was 1967's Bonnie and Clyde (cowritten, ironically enough, by Benton), which combined mythical '30s characters with complex emotional attitudes toward love and violence. Now, in Billy Bathgate, the same sort of material is used for a tepid shot of nostalgia. There has to be more to movies than that. C