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.

If The Age of Innocence is a furtive glance and a knowing smile, -- Bronx Tale is a slap on the back and a sloppy kiss. There's no small irony in the fact that Robert De Niro's directorial debut feels more like a Scorsese picture than the latest Scorsese picture. And the curiosities don't end there. The director is an actor. One of the actors wrote the screenplay based on a real-life crime he witnessed. And De Niro, who made his bones playing charismatic gangsters, portrays a hard-working bus driver, Lorenzo Anello, who battles for his son's loyalties with the local wiseguy. Go figure.

Chazz Palminteri, who plays Sonny, the enigmatic neighborhood racketeer, swears the story is based on a true incident from his childhood. As a young boy growing up in the Bronx in the Sixties, Palminteri witnessed one man shoot another, as does the film's protagonist, Calogero Anello, De Niro's on-screen son. In the movie, unlike real life, the shooter is the local crime boss, Sonny. As the sole witness, Calogero, played by Francis Capra, has the power to put Sonny away, but refuses to identify him. So begins a long relationship between the grateful hood and the streetwise youth that puts Calogero on a collision course with his straight-arrow father, Lorenzo, who would prefer that his son have nothing to do with the flashy criminal.

Once you know the setup, the rest of the story is pretty predictable. Calogero bounces back and forth between his real father and his surrogate one. Eventually the boy must decide whose example to follow. Where -- Bronx Tale is leading is no big surprise. The enjoyment is in getting there, in the subtle shades of character development, the knowing humor, the assured performances.

Palminteri's Sonny is the most sympathetic bad guy to appear on-screen in a long time. It's not that he's soft -- he prefers being feared to being loved because fear lasts longer -- it's just that he's basically fair. And he doesn't seem to really enjoy being a heavy all that much. Too much responsibility. He counsels Calogero -- or C, as he christens the boy -- against following in his footsteps. Better to go to school and learn how to separate suckers from their money legally, he argues.

Sonny's world is populated by an army of Damon Runyon characters. There's Eddie Mush, the luckless gambler whose misfortune is so well-known that the race track gives him his betting tickets already torn up. Or Jo Jo the Whale, a man so huge that legend has it the weight of his shadow once crushed a dog. And there's Phil the Peddler, who goes from threatening to kill the young C if he catches the boy filching fruit from his cart to supplying the teenager with apples and oranges on the outside chance C will put in a good word with Sonny for him.

By contrast, Lorenzo Anello, C's father, leads a pretty mundane existence, driving that damn bus, day in and day out. Lorenzo sees what Sonny's influence is doing to his boy, and he doesn't like it at all. While he would never interfere with Sonny's business for any other reason, he knows no fear when it comes to reclaiming his son's divided loyalty. De Niro's Lorenzo is his best work in at least two years; had he invested this kind of intensity in some of his other recent roles, perhaps Mad Dog and Glory, This Boy's Life, or Night and the City would have been completely different films. Like Woody Allen, another New Yorker whose recent films have been disappointing, De Niro's latest is cause for hope even if it isn't his absolute best.

De Niro the director is a pleasant surprise as well. While not exactly a revelation, A Bronx Tale proves that the honored film star was doing a lot more than resting on his laurels between takes while collaborating with Scorsese in the past. He demonstrates a nice touch for the unexpected comedic twist, and gets some first-rate performances out of unknown actors, not the least of whom is Palminteri. He even exhibits a bit of a knack for the moving camera shot and the smooth integration of a rock soundtrack, a la Scorsese. He's still got a long way to go before he develops a visual flair as distinguished as his mentor's, but at least he's on the right track.

Chalk one up for the student.

The Age of Innocence.
Written by Jay Cocks and Martin Scorsese; directed by Martin Scorsese; with Daniel Day-Lewis, Michelle Pfeiffer, and Winona Ryder.

A Bronx Tale.
Written by Chazz Palminteri; directed by Robert De Niro; with Robert De Niro, Chazz Palminteri, and Lillo Brancato.

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