Raging Directors

Martin Scorsese and Robert De Niro. As a team they've been responsible for three of the finest movies of the past quarter-century: Mean Streets, Taxi Driver, and Raging Bull. Even their near-misses have made for compelling filmmaking; it's hard to imagine a director-actor tandem alive that wouldn't be proud to include The King of Comedy, Cape Fear, or Goodfellas among their body of work.

Once again the two men are the topic du jour in conversations among cinema aficionados, although this time perhaps less for their on-screen accomplishment than for decisions they made prior to shooting the first frame of film. To wit: Scorsese, a director best known for his unflinching depictions of urban violence and gritty realism, has taken a huge career risk by bringing to the screen The Age of Innocence, an adaption of Edith Wharton's 1920 tragedy of manners, unconsummated passion, and hypocrisy among the blue bloods of nineteenth-century New York. No gunshots, no chase scenes, and no Mafiosi spewing 47 variations of the word "fuck".

A Bronx Tale covers more familiar ground. Like The Age of Innocence, it's a period piece of sorts, a coming-of-age story set in the Bronx of the early Sixties. The standard Scorsese elements are all present -- a backdrop of volatile but loving Italian-American family life, dollops of colorful profanity, and sudden, terrifying gunplay. The hook here is that while the film has much of the look and feel of a typical Scorsese outing, the hyperkinetic director had nothing to do with it (except, perhaps, indirectly, as mentor). For the first time in his career, De Niro steps behind the camera as well as in front of it.

So the match is set. In this corner, the teacher, the undisputed heavyweight champion of the directorial world. In that corner, his challenger, the ambitious former student. Clang!

Innocence gets off to a slow start and languishes there. The carefully chosen china, the meticulously prepared place settings, the discreet whispers and polite conversations riddled with half-truths and double meanings -- it's a feast of lavish detail and lush, lyrical scenery from which all the rough edges have been removed. No emotion goes unmuted; a scandalous affair consists of little more than stolen kisses and furtive hand-holding. Repressed desires and unconsummated passions among the upper crust are the matter at hand. But Scorsese's preoccupation with the minutiae has the same effect as a shiny pocket watch in the hands of a hypnotist; if you want to fall under the spell you will, but it's due as much to your predisposition as it is to the skill of the charmer.

Entering Wharton's world is like stepping into a genteel maze. All distinctions are subtle; wordplay is deadlier than swordplay. It is not enough for a street to be respectable, it must be fashionable. Among the epigrams: Everything is labeled; everybody is not. Legislation favors divorce but social customs do not. The family matriarch is a porcine dowager empress, the "burden of her flesh" confining her to the ground floor of her house but not interfering one whit with her ability to manipulate the lives of her family. Little Italy's Johnny Boy and Charlie wouldn't even make it through the servants' entrance.

The casting of Daniel Day-Lewis as Newland Archer, the aristocrat who must choose between his compulsive desire for scandal-tainted Countess Olenska, played by Michelle Pfeiffer, or his comfortable marriage to the countess's sweet but vapid cousin May Welland, portrayed by Winona Ryder, is a grave miscalculation. The actor's unnaturally stiff delivery and over-reliance on a single mannerism -- the clenching and unclenching of his jaw to convey anger, shock, or frustration -- quickly grow wearisome. While his performance improves as the film progresses, too often Day-Lewis wilts when he should be smoldering. Unfortunately, his is the central role in the drama; as his portrayal sags so does the entire production.

Fortunately, Michelle Pfeiffer is as enchanting as her male costar is bloodless. As she has so many times before, from her turn as the ice maiden in Scarface through her campy romp as Catwoman in Batman Returns, Pfeiffer dazzles. The lady drops a "shan't" like she learned the word from Wharton herself. Pfeiffer conveys more genuine emotion with one tilt of her head than Day-Lewis does in two hours' worth of jowl tensing and muzzle flexing.

Screenwriters Scorsese and Jay Cocks have some fun with the pretensions and conventions of the gentility. "You must have three weeks to do India properly," pronounces one pompous ass at a dinner party. But Scorsese's lyrical camerawork and reverential rendering of the trappings of wealth are at odds with Wharton's biting and bittersweet satire. As a screenwriter he's lampooning the foibles of the privileged few; as a director he's glamorizing them.

It's a long way from the mean streets to the drawing rooms. To his credit, Scorsese gives himself over to the rhythms of the period completely. Anticipation and frustration rule; manners are sacrosanct. A shared carriage, an unbuttoned glove, a bared wrist, a tender caress -- that's as down and dirty as it gets. Howards End and -- Room with a View have far more visceral appeal.

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