The Cotton Club

July 27, 2012

A few years ago, Robert Evans, the producer of films such as The Godfather and Chinatown, needed a script rewrite for a project about new York’s famous Cotton Club, a place where white audiences paid top dollar to see black entertainment during the height of the Jazz Age.

Evans had worked with larger-than-life director Francis Coppola on The Godfather, and he called Coppola to get some suggestions for a good script doctor. Coppola, ever alert (and coming off a string of commercial disasters), quickly suggested himself. Thus commenced a series of events that probably made Evans wish he’d never heard of Coppola or the Cotton Club.

Before long, Coppola had thrown out the original screenplay (the film’s “story” credit goes to Mario Puzo) and written a completely new script with Pulitzer Prize-winner William Kennedy. Then Coppola assumed the mantle of director, and the production of the film itself was beset by rising costs and constant script rewrites.

And somewhere in the midst of this Robert Evans went bye-bye. The lawsuits are now flying, but it’s hard to imagine they will have any effect on what is already an incredibly expensive movie (something between $40 and $50 million, at last count).

Coppola seems to be attracted by this kind of guerrilla moviemaking, but whether or not it agrees with him is another matter. The films he produced while he played at being the mogul of his own hectic studio were almost wholly uninvolving.

With The Cotton Club, he’s gotten himself interesting again. This film, which whips up a blend of gangsterism and musical comedy, clips along at a confident pace and has enough flavorful characters to fill a speakeasy.

Richard Gere plays a cornet player (and Gere plays his own horn solos, by golly) whose trajectory through the Jazz Age—in the film, from the late ’20s through the early ’30s—places him in close contact with such figures as gangster Dutch Schultz (rivetingly played by unctuous James Remar), the Dutchman’s moll (Diane Lane), and the men who run the Cotton Club (Bob The Long Goodbye Hoskins and Fred “The Munsters” Gwynne, who make a great comedy team).

Gere’s brother (Nicolas Cage, Coppola’s cousin) is a hothead swept into the violent world around the Cotton Club, with bloody results. This story of the brothers is paralleled by a pair of dancing brothers (Gregory and Maurice Hines) who work their way up through the Cotton Club to different levels of stardom.

The film is obviously chock-full; unfortunately, as enjoyable as much of this is, Coppola has a tendency to rush past the building blocks of characterization. He has atmosphere (kudos to designer Richard Sylbert) and rat-a-tat action down pat, but once the smoke clears, I was left with the nagging feeling that the sound and fury didn’t amount to too much.

The scope of the film calls for the three-hour Godfather sprawl, and Cotton Club clocks in at barely over two. Characters meet, split, and kiss and make up with not much validation for their behavior. Coppola asks you to take a lot for granted.

I wish the extra hour might have had more song-and-dance in it, too; although the film is full of terrific music, few numbers are presented in their entirety (Coppola enjoys cutting routines in pieces rather than letting them develop on their own). Still, Lonette McKee’s “Ill Wind” is a stand-out, and the brothers Hines tread the boards with grace.

Coppola likes to describe himself as a ringmaster/magician of chaos. He may not quite prove that the hand is quicker than the eye in The Cotton Club, but at least he keeps all three rings of the circus busy at once.

First published in the Herald, December 15, 1984

As anybody who’s ever seen this movie knows, you can forget about Gere and Lane: Bob Hoskins and Fred Gwynne are where the action is.


The Big Town

March 31, 2011

If your cinematic tastes run to rain-spattered streets under neon lights, skeletal sharpies with razor-creased pants leaning against lampposts, and brassy dames dishing out the what-for, then The Big Town may be just the ticket. It delivers all of those things in aces.

On the other hand, it doesn’t do much with those things—simply wraps them around a conventional storyline. But it’s a passably enjoyable two hours, for various reasons.

The conventional storyline is the one about the small-town kid (Matt Dillon) who’s handy with dice, and who heads to the big city to make his mark as a gambler. In this case, the big city is Chicago, 1957.

This is the kind of movie in which everybody keeps telling this boy, “Jeez, kid, you’re good with the dice, maybe the best I ever seen.” It follows that the kid gets involved with the local gamblers and has an incredible streak of luck. Romantically, he’s caught in another well-worn dilemma: Does he throw his affection toward the stripper (Diane Lane) down at the Gem Club? Or toward the nice girl (Suzy Amis) who lives away from the neon side of town?

For a while, he throws his affections like dice. Eventually, he’ll come to a predictable conclusion.

The producer of The Big Town, Martin Ransohoff, is an old pro, and he knows how to mount this sort of good-looking production—the music, sets, costumes are a pleasure. He’s also gathered quite a good cast, including a bunch of notable names in supporting roles.

Tommy Lee Jones, for instance, does very tasty work as the nasty organizer of the town’s most freewheeling game. Bruce Dern and Lee Grant play Dillon’s shady financial backers; Tom Skerritt is enigmatically cheerful as a gambler who has a very old secret.

But, believe it or not, the finest work in the movie is done by Matt Dillon. During his teen years, it appeared Dillon’s sullenness would overwhelm him (even in Coppola’s The Outsiders and Rumblefish), and he’d be a goner once he outgrew his acne.

Well, the kid can act. This is the first film in which he looks like a full-fledged movie star, and it’s crucial, because he essentially has to carry the film. It’s a graceful performance, full of the nervous energy of this sharpshooter but without tics or gimmicks.

One other name to note: Suzy Amis, the good girl, will be someone. Maybe not right away, but someday. You read it here first.

The screenplay was written by Robert Roy Pool and directed by Ben Bolt, who has done nice work for TV. They don’t quite lift The Big Town into the big leagues, but they organize the action competently, which is just enough to make the thing work.

First published in the Herald, September 1987

I’m telling you, you heard it here first. But go easy on me—it is as hard to predict the careers of actresses as it is the careers of starting pitchers in the major leagues; too many things can go wrong, regardless of the raw material. So I guess Suzy Amis simply tore her rotator cuff, or its equivalent. I’m surprised my youthful self did not say more about Diane Lane, who’s hard to ignore in this movie. But Dillon deservedly gets the kudos, and Drugstore Cowboy was just two years away. The Big Town was such a flat-line that none of the good stuff, or the bad stuff, really mattered.