Fighting City Hall

Al Pacino's latest star vehicle flirts with greatness, then succumbs to triteness

Still, Pacino is at the top of his game. From the previews, I expected to see him fulminating his lines mercilessly, but in fact that rarely happens. The reserved moments of his performance dominate, and except for the ending, Pappas is wholly believable. As Pacino gets older, he seems to be shrinking, and like a white-dwarf star, the weight of his personality becomes more compacted and more powerful.

The rest of the cast isn't as lucky at escaping the gravity of the script as it spirals downward. Cusack's performance, even in the first half, seems off, but it gets worse; by the end, he's confused and brainless. Aiello suffers similarly with a character that sometimes seems to be the ultimate politico, at other times a wayward ingénue.

But Bridget Fonda languishes the most. She plays her character--crusading lawyer Marybeth Cogan--as a cookie-cutter knee-jerk liberal, an irksome chihuahua whose bark is so patently stronger than her bite that she loses credibility the first moment we see her. (In that moment, she's furiously writing notes while talking to a cop's widow, as though she's going to slam the note pad in her hand at some later date and whine about the "statements I have recorded." It's clearly busywork for both character and actress, and not well-considered busywork at that.

Fonda often seems lost in underwritten parts. She swims around inside her characters like a drowning woman who will grab hold of flotsam just to keep afloat. In City Hall, the result is that Marybeth embodies a mass of contradictions. She's tough but willowy, pretending to be uncompromising yet easily intimidated by even the most casual of threats. She goes running to Calhoun the second there's any trouble--like a scared schoolgirl hoping her older brother will protect her from the class bully. I don't know what bothers me more: the fact that an actress as gifted as Fonda is saddled with such a nothing role, or the presumption of the screenwriters that we wouldn't notice, or worse still, wouldn't care.

The last great movie to paint a vivid panorama of urban life was John Sayles' brilliant City of Hope. I got similar vibes from the early scenes in City Hall, and grew very excited by the hints of subdued, shadowy menace. The excitement quickly dissipated. That's too bad, since Becker has crafted a look and texture with enviable dexterity, then stranded it in a script that falls from greatness to triteness before our very eyes. It's as painful as watching your candidate self-destruct on election night.

City Hall. Castlerock Entertainment. Al Pacino, John Cusack, Bridget Fonda, Danny Aiello. Written by Ken Lipper, Paul Schrader, Nicholas Pileggi, and Bo Goldman. Directed by Harold Becker. Opens February 16.

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