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Pacino is a great actor who can also be the most self-indulgent of actors. In City Hall, playing the mayor of New York City, he gives a eulogy in a black church, and his oration is so over-the-top phony you wonder why the mourners don't throw him out. It is a fraudulent scene because the mayor is supposed to be coasting on sincerity; all we see is an actor popping out of character and getting high on his pipes. Looking for Richard is like that scene in City Hall times ten, so self-indulgent it's mesmerizing.
Toned down in Donnie Brasco, Pacino may appear to be performing a different kind of stunt: Hey, everybody, it's Low-Key Al. But he's doing more than that. In the past Pacino has sometimes nullified himself playing brooders; he also (in a movie such as Two Bits) has a penchant for being folksy-fake. But as Lefty, Pacino doesn't overplay the folksy small-time stuff. He doesn't ask for our sympathy, even when the movie does. He rises above such misconceptions as the scenes in which Lefty sits at home watching gory wildlife documentaries on TV. (That's the kind of "cute" screenwriter's tell-all trick that tells us nothing.)
A bigger problem with the movie is Johnny Depp's role. If Donnie Brasco is about the price of betrayal, then we need to see how Donnie suffers for the cause. We need to see not only Donnie but Joe Pistone -- the man who flinches inwardly at the mayhem he must pretend to condone. Instead Depp gives us gradations of blankness. Donnie doesn't seem like a man fighting for his soul; he enters the film with his soul already lost. When he reunites with his wife (Anne Heche) and kids, who are mostly in the dark about what he does and are angry about his long absences, he can't shake his mobbed-up self. There might be some horror in that if we could see the kind of man he was apart from the mob. But when Donnie tells his wife, "I'm not becoming like them, I am them," the line is a thudder because it's all too true, right from the start.
For all its scrupulousness and intelligence, Donnie Brasco is on to something larger than it can accommodate. It has as its centerpiece a victor who made a difference, yet it goes for the easy ironies of a downbeat ending. Joe Pistone made a serious dent in the Mafia, but the film allows him no joy in his victory. (The real Pistone, excepting the toll on his home life and his present existence of anonymous seclusion, claims no regrets.) Because the filmmakers have skewed the story into a Donnie-Lefty lovefest, the breakage of their trust signals the breakage of Donnie's spirit even in triumph. Case closed. It's the kind of fade-out we might expect from the it's-all-hopeless era of Sixties counterculture movies. It's emotionally effective but also a cheat. It denies a genuine hero his heroism.
Written by Paul Attanasio; directed by Mike Newell; with Al Pacino, Johnny Depp, Michael Madsen, Anne Heche, Bruno Kirby, and James Russo.
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