Fighting City Hall

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

As a rule, I oppose giving away the endings of movies--not because of some vague notion of devotion to the film itself, but because it isn't necessary. If a movie is bad, it's usually bad all the way through, and divulging the climax is pointless.

Rules were made to be broken, and City Hall practically invites you to break them with its half-assed conclusion. So be forewarned.

Few things are more depressing than a potentially fine film which squanders its claim to greatness by insisting that the audience get a tidy resolution--even one of such excruciating banality as in City Hall. Some movies just don't know when to leave good enough alone.

The first half of City Hall is absolutely dandy, a smart deconstruction of the political process in New York City. For more than an hour, I sat transfixed by a portrait of civic turmoil that rang totally true, like Tom Wolfe's book The Bonfire of the Vanities. The compassionate but ultimately Machiavellian mayor, John Pappas (Al Pacino), copes with the accidental police-related shooting of a 6-year-old. The media naturally want to lynch everyone involved in allowing the killer to stay on the street: the parole officer who recommended probation instead of jail time, the judge who handed down the sentence, and anyone else within eyeshot.

At the same time, Pappas is occupied with trying to appease the demands of a borough boss (Danny Aiello), and with luring the Democratic Party to New York for its national convention--and anointing the charismatic mayor as its keynote speaker.

The activity whirling around in City Hall is kaleidoscopic and dazzling in a dark, brooding way. Director Harold Becker ably juggles the many subplots with grace and coherence, and his skill at creating a strong sense of place--from the musty caves of low-level grunt workers to the fading splendor of wine-colored offices of power, all with the wet, painterly tones of a Rembrandt--is palpable.

Yet unlike Bonfire, which acknowledged that the actual truth can only be known to the few who live it, City Hall's second act feels obligatory and fake. The screenwriters--heavyweights Paul Schrader, Nicholas Pileggi, Bo Goldman, and Ken Lipper--seem compelled to give the story absolute closure, putting the lid on the labyrinthine plot that was unraveled with such masterful authenticity. That decision undermines the gritty reality that had been so painstakingly developed, and slams the brakes on the richness of mood.

Within minutes, the screenplay plummets 50 IQ points--and for no identifiable purpose. Characters behave in capricious, "writerly" ways not suggested earlier, and what had seemed complicated and real becomes contrived. Suddenly you feel like everyone has been replaced by the body snatchers: They are all instantly incapable of delivering what had been real dialogue, but instead spit out a sickening stream of utopian pabulum about honor and government that was probably quaintly provincial even in Plato's day.

The film's smugness tries to hide under the guise of nobility, but it's a ruse of pitiable transparency. Kevin Calhoun (John Cusack), Pappas' deputy mayor, narrates the story. A Louisiana boy nursed on politics, Calhoun, of all people, should be wise to the one constant in politics: Politicians lie, even mayors that moon-eyed aides like Calhoun have placed on pedestals.

The film's big surprise--read no further if you don't want it spoiled--is that Pappas isn't as squeaky clean as Calhoun has made him out to be. Pappas, it turns out, is the one who got the killer probation in the first place--as a payoff to a mob kingpin (Tony Franciosa)--and when Calhoun discovers the mayor's misdeed, he insists that Pappas forgo his aspirations for the presidency as penance for his reprehensible graft.

I might have been able to stomach such naivete under the right conditions, but the twist where the film lost me was this: Pappas agrees with him! When Calhoun demands that he fade off into political oblivion, Pacino gets to deliver a speech that is only slightly less idiotic than this: Kid, ya derailed my express train to the White House, ya undermined our friendship, ya poked your nose where it didn't belong, and now you've committed political suicide. But ya got moxie, kid. Ya remind me of me when I was your age. Give us a hug!

Actually, this speech is better than the one in the movie: It has the honesty to confront its own imbecility head-on. Did the screenwriters actually expect us to believe that a politician from Louisiana can be shocked by corruption? Even films from the '40s were brighter than that. I half expected William Demarest to come running in, stogy lit and fedora askew, creaking on about some party shill they've convinced to take the fall. Then I would have known it was all a big joke.

Of course, it is not. Strangely enough, the film sometimes seems conscious of the foolishness of its melodrama, but is unwilling to correct it. When Calhoun tells Pappas of his cloak-and-dagger meeting with a mob informant, the mayor snipes, "What are you, some gumshoe from a dime novel? You're the deputy mayor, for Chrissakes! Act like it!" Calhoun refuses to heed his advice, and you're left wondering why the film seems so dead-set on steering itself over this vast chasm of self-righteous indignation.

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 ingŽnue.

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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