Bugsy, the biography of Forties gangster Ben "Bugsy" Siegel, the man who built Las Vegas, is directed by Barry Levinson, who knows a thing or two about the way men think; his previous films, including Diner and Tin Men, are about how men relate to one another while ignoring or abusing the women in their lives. Levinson's strong sense of time and place, cautious direction, and love of crackling ironic dialogue keep grappling with Warren Beatty's urge to sell himself as a charismatic star even when the material demands that he come off as a weasel. Bugsy feels like a mid-Seventies anti-epic about the underbelly of the American dream, similar to Francis Coppola's Godfather films -- only not as controlled and powerful, because Levinson and Beatty keep doing things that place them at odds with each other. The creative tension between them is visible on-screen, and it's part of the fun; you keep trying to guess which one of them came up with what.
If taken straight, James Toback's script feels like adolescent wish fulfillment. It's the story of a violent, overgrown boy whose vision of a city of glitter and sex in the Nevada desert was undercut by just about everyone in his life; only after Siegel's murder did his Flamingo Hotel take off, spurring others to flock to Las Vegas to claim their slice of American pie. Toback and Beatty transform Siegel, who was a brutal, paranoid gangster in real life, into a misunderstood visionary whose massive shortcomings are compensated by his comic-book lust for life.
Bugsy is a man-ahead-of-his-time film, full of gleaming old cars and fancy duds, and backed with ironically upbeat music; it's Tucker with guns. When Siegel is martyred at the hands of his underhanded buddies, we get a failed-dreamer final shot: Las Vegas circa 1946, with only one hotel, followed by a slow dissolve to modern Las Vegas, pulsating gloriously --
an Emerald City of appetite. A printed summary informs us, without irony, that had Siegel lived, he would have seen his kitschy hotel and casino grow into a multibillion-dollar industry. This note of finality seems forced, even silly: it's not like Siegel gave us a cure for polio, just a flashy location for tourists to blow big wads of cash, get laid, and go see Wayne Newton.
On the surface, nearly everything about Bugsy feels right. Levinson has become a director with a recognizable visual style -- enormous close-ups that track characters through crowds and up stairwells, moody, soft lighting, old-fashioned montages with dazzling superimpositions, cleverly placed period music, and raw, spontaneous-sounding conversations.
There are problems, though: Levinson's never been a good director of women, and Annette Bening often looks lost among all those grungy gangsters; as Siegel's mistress, Virginia Hill, she alternates between woman-ahead-of-her-time assertiveness, vixenish Forties-gangster-film posturing, and motherly affection for the childish Siegel -- sometimes within the space of the same scene. And although Levinson's superb at taking us into another time and place, he's not so good at populating it with characters who make historical sense. Just as Robin Williams often seemed like he'd arrived via Eighties time warp in Levinson's Good Morning, Vietnam, Levinson occasionally lets Beatty preen, smirk, and beg sympathy from the audience; such lapses of taste remind us that we're watching an aging Seventies star go through the old bad-boy motions.
But that's what makes Beatty's performance fascinating. The old Beatty tics are all in place -- flirty smile, pouty glances, chances to tell off bureaucrats and dummies, and even Shampoo-style screwball slapstick (particularly when he runs from room to room in his house, juggling his daughter's birthday party, negotiations with his business associates, and long-distance conversations with his mistress, all while wearing a ludicrous chef's hat).
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But Siegel's explosions of jealousy and macho rage are unlike anything Beatty has done before; veins bulging, voice hoarse, Siegel's desperate need to break and humiliate others is the most upsettingly real emotion in the picture. Like Beatty's amorous hairdresser from Shampoo, Ben Siegel plays up the illusion of his own flakiness to prevent others from getting too close to him -- he uses his own shallowness as a defense mechanism. Except Siegel doesn't turn his unhappiness inward: he takes it out on everybody else.
Like Tom Cruise in Born on the Fourth of July, Toback and Levinson have given their leading man a role that both plays on his cocky, pretty-boy image and shockingly subverts it. Beatty seems both uncomfortable and thrilled with the chance to rant, hate, and kill; it's as if Toback's sexist dialogue and Levinson's brutal staging of on-screen violence released something inside him long buried by his need to be loved and adored. Beatty manipulates the audience the way Siegel manipulates his associates. His shocking unpredictability keeps us guessing, and keeps us interested, even when we know we're watching a well-made piece of arty trash.
Directed by Barry Levinson, script by James Toback, with Warren Beatty, Annette Bening, Ben Kingsley, and Elliot Gould.