It’s amazing what can be done with cinematography and makeup. In Bugsy, specially lighted and caked with makeup, fifty-something Warren Beatty can play late thirties something Ben Siegel, albeit specially lighted and caked in makeup. The lighting is incredibly distracting, particularly in the scenes where Beatty is the only one getting the attempt at age-defying light. It gives the film a bright orange hue and it really doesn’t need any further attention drawn to Levinson’s almost indifference to its place as a period piece. There’s no texture to Bugsy‘s early 1940s Hollywood. It seems like there should be–had the film been shot on sound stages, it would have added a lot.
The problems are pretty simple. It’s boring and unrewarding. Not in the conclusion, but minute-to-minute. Bugsy is about someone who’s a little nuts and his romance with someone who’s either a little nuts, a lot stupid or deceptive and manipulative. The pair–Beatty and Annette Bening–do not make for a charismatic pair. Bening is mediocre at best. Beatty’s best scenes are with Harvey Keitel (who probably gives the film’s best performance as Mickey Cohen), Ben Kingsley (also mediocre, but his writing is better than Bening’s), Joe Mantegna and, in particular, Elliott Gould. I’ll partially retract my Keitel statement–Gould gives the film’s best performance. As Siegel, Beatty really doesn’t have much to do. When the film tries to give some weight to his suffering, it’s desperate.
The real problem, then, is the script. James Toback, little shock, doesn’t write interesting people and he doesn’t write interesting historical fiction. With such unappealing character arcs, all Bugsy has going for it is the chance at being really good historical fiction. It isn’t. The whole film is based on the premise the movie stars are going to make the uninteresting story–I mean, really, a paragraph could summarize the pertinent action in the film–interesting. It’s also based on the premise, but only at the end and somewhat ludicrously, the audience is supposed to be upset mobster Siegel got a raw deal from the mob. Whoop de doo.
If Levinson had pushed and given the film some visual flare… it wouldn’t have done much good. The Ennio Morricone score, which sounds a lot like all of his other scores from the mid-eighties to the mid-nineties, is a poor fit to the material. It’s distracting and goofy.
Still, it’s a competently made Hollywood vanity project (I don’t know who’s vanity, Beatty’s I guess). But it’s an excruciating two and a half hours.
Directed by Barry Levinson; screenplay by James Toback, based on a book by Dean Jennings; director of photography, Allen Daviau; edited by Stu Linder; music by Ennio Morricone; production designer, Dennis Gassner; produced by Levinson, Beatty and Mark Johnson; released by Tri-Star Pictures.
Starring Warren Beatty (Benjamin ‘Bugsy’ Siegel), Annette Bening (Virginia Hill), Harvey Keitel (Mickey Cohen), Ben Kingsley (Meyer Lansky), Elliott Gould (Harry Greenberg), Joe Mantegna (George Raft), Richard C. Sarafian (Jack Dragna), Bebe Neuwirth (Countess di Frasso), Gian-Carlo Scandiuzzi (Count di Frasso), Wendy Phillips (Esta Siegel), Stefanie Mason (Millicent Siegel), Kimberly McCullough (Barbara Siegel), Andy Romano (Del Webb), Robert Beltran (Alejandro), Bill Graham (Charlie Luciano) and Lewis Van Bergen (Joey Adonis).