Potboiler 101

Just as too many chefs spoil the broth, too many screenwriters spoil the script. In the case of the disappointing City Hall, a roster of four heavyweights -- three from the world of movie writing and one from the world of high finance -- contributes to a muddled screenplay that only sporadically averts the cinematic equivalent of gridlock. Given the awesome slate of talent that went into the making of this film, City Hall's numbing mediocrity ranks as a letdown of monumental proportions.

First consider the writers' bloc: Paul Schrader, perhaps the most respected screenwriter working in Hollywood today, has written three of the best American films of the past twenty years -- Taxi Driver, Raging Bull, and The Last Temptation of Christ. Bo Goldman adapted One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest for the screen, as well as penning The Rose and Scent of a Woman. Nicholas Pileggi authored Casino -- both the nonfiction book and the movie based on it (director Martin Scorsese shared credit for the screenplay) -- after previously collaborating with Scorsese on the script for GoodFellas, which was adapted from Pileggi's nonfiction book Wiseguy. Ken Lipper's motion picture experience pales in comparison to that of his City Hall cowriters (he served as a technical consultant for Oliver Stone's Wall Street and wrote the novelized version of that film). But Lipper, who fashioned the original draft of City Hall before the big-name hired guns came in and doctored it up, has an impressive pedigree of his own: Harvard Law School grad, former New York City deputy mayor under Ed Koch, and founder of the billion-dollar Wall Street investment firm Lipper & Company.

The cast, led by Al Pacino as embattled New York City Mayor John Pappas, is equally impressive: John Cusack, Bridget Fonda, Danny Aiello, Martin Landau, David Paymer -- respected thespians all, if not in Pacino's league. And they are directed by Harold Becker, whose collaboration with Pacino on Sea of Love yielded a fun, sexy (if not entirely credible) whodunit. But like talented and well-meaning civil servants toiling for a bureaucracy as massive and labyrinthine as New York City's, the director and his cast get swallowed up by City Hall. With so many writers pulling the strings, compromise becomes the order of the day. The movie jumps from one plot line to another without developing any of them except the least original one -- the hackneyed political potboiler with a corruption-in-high-places payoff.

You can probably feel Lipper's influence the most in the film's early going when, with his insider's eye for detail, the behind-the-scenes workings of the office of the mayor of New York are exposed. Pacino's Mayor Pappas -- loosely patterned after Lipper's ex-boss, Ed Koch, as well as former Big Apple honcho Fiorello La Guardia -- schleps about his city's mean streets discharging the duties of his office, brokering deals, raising money, calling in favors, delivering galvanizing speeches, and compromising, compromising, compromising. In public Pappas appears compassionate, feisty, and square-shooting. In private he seems cynical and world-weary. Pacino plays him the same way he portrayed the cop in Sea of Love, only this time he gets to wear more expensive suits. Pappas is like a tired but still-lethal gunslinger. You can never be sure how much he bases his words and actions on his gut feelings versus his best political interests. John Cusack's Deputy Mayor Kevin Calhoun supplies the energy, idealism, and enthusiasm that his boss/mentor lacks. Together they make a crack team with scarcely concealed long-term aspirations for the big enchilada: the White House.

But then one rainy afternoon in Brooklyn a cop and a drug dealer shoot it out on a street corner. Both men die, and a stray bullet kills an innocent black child on his way to school. Both the cop's and the dealer's pasts come under intense media scrutiny. Questions surround both. The dealer is the nephew of a Mafia kingpin who doesn't like seeing his surname emblazoned across the front pages of the newspapers. The cop, a decorated veteran with a reputation for being something of a pit bull, was acting way outside the guidelines of accepted procedure by, among other things, meeting the drug dealer without backup from his colleagues. The police department's Internal Affairs division investigates. Calhoun pulls the dealer's rap sheet. Something isn't kosher; the bad guy got probation and was on the street when he should have been serving ten to twenty for armed robbery.

Quicker than you can say John Grisham, the narrative fabric of City Hall unravels. The movie degenerates from a fascinating peek behind the curtain at big-city politics into generic political-thriller hokum that you've seen a thousand times before A mostly on TV. Suddenly the screen is awash in cliches, complete with an attempted coverup and clandestine late-night meetings with shadowy underworld figures who turn up dead the next morning. From the moment you learn (maybe a third of the way into the movie) that a Mafia-friendly city councilman (Danny Aiello) and the mayor go way back, you pretty much know on whose desk the burgeoning scandal will ultimately land. Unfortunately, because you have to wait nearly the rest of the movie for the naively loyal deputy mayor to catch on, City Hall feels longer than it really is.

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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