Martin Scorsese recently made a list of his top 15 gangster movies, which I’ve enjoyed dipping into, particularly the crazy great Night and the City. The list was released just in time to pimp Boardwalk Empire, HBO’s latest attempt to exculpate itself for passing on Mad Men; Scorsese directed the first episode.
Well, BE will not be heading up my top 15 anything anytime soon. I wanted to like it, based on an article in American Cinematographer magazine (I confess that discussions of lenses and fill lights can make me downright giddy these days). Even a modicum of production experience gives you new insights into the craft and care and thousands of decisions that go into making the simplest narrative film. Add recreating a period with Scorsese’s well-known perfectionism and HBO’s obsession with giving MM a Sopranos-like run for its money, and the ionospheric expectations practically suffocate you.
Certainly BE has the right stuff to be great: Kelly MacDonald and Stephen Graham (get This Is England in the Netflix queue stat) prove yet again that Brits can act circles around Yanks, though Michael Shannon is generally interesting and Michael Pitt does a nice job standing in as young Leo DiCaprio. The thing is art directed to a fine fare-thee-well by Doug Huszti, and the pilot was balletically shot by Stuart Dryburgh. As long as nobody’s talking, there is a restless, melancholic beauty that can make you feel like you’re watching something of substance.
But therein lies the rub: the writing so far is kind of crap, and casting Steve Buscemi as the main character Nucky Johnson will either go down as one of the most interesting risks in television history or one of the most bizarre decisions since Charleton Heston played that Mexican guy in Touch of Evil. To the first point, I love movies that minimize cussing in period pieces and take advantage of all the weird things people said at any given time. I’m sure people dropped f-bombs in the 20s, but I also bet they didn’t drop as many; why would you when you could say, “I caught that hotsy-totsy dumb dora utterly splifficated in her flivver after they gimme the bum’s rush for breakin’ out the giggle water in the juke joint. Dollars to doughnuts, she ain’t no Mrs. Grundy!” Writers need to research their periods as meticulously as any of the other artists on the set, and the amount of profanity in BE is just plain lazy, particularly given the richness of the period lexicon. It would all be more forgivable if there were some fresheness to the story, but, man, this shit looks familiar. (Couldn’t they have at least tried to make the nighttime chase in the woods a little different from the better one in Michael Mann’s Public Enemies? It’s only been a year!) It’s hard to give a rat’s ass about anything that takes place onscreen, except when MacDonald and Graham show up, which is when you wish extra hard that they had better material.
Buscemi has been nothing short of wonderful (Ghost World), the Coens always figure out exactly the right way to use him, and he’s otherwise a solid character actor with a nice unsettling sadness to his chihuahua-ish pale blue eyes. But here, he’s just bizarre. There’s no question that his character, Nucky Johnson, is a loathsome weasel, but he at least has to exhibit some charisma, some gravitas, some menace, to be convincing. The guy can be a puppet in service of evil, but Evil is no dope; it will pick a puppet with at least a semblance of sex appeal. Here, Buscemi has none. I could buy him waking up cuddled next to the amazon floozy played by Paz de la Huerta – he can exude a sort of misfit sweetness. But in a scene that is surely getting a lot of YouTube time, where she straddles him backwards and moans her way to a raucous climax about as realistic as Meg Ryan’s famous pastrami sandwich orgasm, I cringed for both his pelvis and his member; surely, one, the other, or both were at terrible risk of irreparable breakage. Buscemi’s whining in the background, in which he sounded like a mother-in-law impression by a hack comedian, only made the scene more shudder inducing.
Apparently the show’s creator Terence Winter has said that the best choice for Nucky would have been James Gandolfini; why HBO passed on that sure bet is beyond me, because BE doing everything it can to position itself as the Sopranos anyway, just 90 years earlier. But if the studio turns its nose up at – gasp – such cynicism, why the 180? Why not get the original pick for Tony Soprano, Ray Liotta? Liotta didn’t want to play Tony because he’d just done Goodfellas, but he would’ve been one hell of a Nucky.
Antiheros need to be sexy. Edward G. Robinson would easily win an Ugly Mug competition over Buscemi, and yet you can’t take your eyes off the guy. If you want to get away from the brick shithouse model, look to Richard Widmark in Night and the City, a lanky, anemic loser a la Buscemi. But Widmark’s desperation makes him dangerous, and there’s a smoldering rage under all of it. Buscemi’s biggest threat, at least as evidenced in the pilot, is that he’ll whine you to death.
For the sake of the featured Brits and the craftsmanship – for Lord’s sake, they recreated the Atlantic City boardwalk in Brooklyn – I’ll probably give it another shot. But I will be hard put not to multi-task while it plays.