Potboiler 101

Because the filmmakers decided to concentrate on the conventional who-screwed-up-and-why story line, they have to truncate other intriguing plot developments. For example, they spend a lot of time cutting back and forth from the mayor comforting the cop's family to him consoling the dead kid's father. However, despite the mayor's quick response and apparently genuine compassion, tension mounts in the black community, where the only facts that seem to matter are dead kid, white cop. But then the filmmakers dismiss the whole racial-tension angle with one surreal scene in which Pappas confronts a hostile black congregation at the funeral service for the murdered kid and proceeds to deliver an over-the-top eulogy-sermon-exhortation that wins over everybody. As Pacino takes the pulpit and adopts the swooping vocal inflections and fiery hand gestures of a black evangelist, working the congregation up into a whooping call-and-response frenzy, you don't know whether to titter at the bizarre spectacle of this weather-beaten Italian actor attempting to swipe a page from the Jesse Jackson book of oratory or to applaud Pacino, director Becker, and the quartet of screenwriters for damn near pulling off the scene. Regardless, the issue of black unrest is never visited again. Any suspicions that it might resurface are laid to rest with the announcement that the bullet that killed the boy came from the drug dealer's gun, not the cop's.

You begin to doubt that the movie knows where it wants to go, a hunch confirmed by the introduction of Bridget Fonda's completely extraneous character, an attorney for something called the Detectives Endowment Association. Her job, ostensibly, is to represent the slain cop's widow, although to what end and against whom is never made clear. Her real purpose, of course, is to fill the traditional role to which female characters in political melodramas are so often relegated -- to provide a romantic interest for a male lead. Her attorney and Cusack's deputy mayor begin as adversaries, only to become allies, crack the case together, and make eyes at each other. What a waste!

But what should we have expected? Both big-time politics and big-budget filmmaking are milieus dominated by white middle-age men who mouth high-minded platitudes to mask their real concerns: making money, consolidating power, and perpetuating their own careers. City Hall offered Hollywood a chance to expound on themes that the town knows intimately -- greed, hypocrisy, back-room dealmaking, the influence of organized crime, and the collapse of noble intentions into ignoble compromise. But that would have taken guts, vision, and risk. Instead what you get is a movie written by committee, going off in several directions at once and finally settling on a safe but predictable route. Small surprise then that, as is so characteristic of both movie studios and office seekers, City Hall promises far more than it delivers.

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