3 MAY 1997, Page 47


Donnie Brasco (18, selected cinemas)

Quietly does it

Mark Steyn

One of the few endearing qualities about Hollywood execs is their habit, for all their much-vaunted insider cynicism, of reacting to hit films like any old Coke-guz- zler at the multiplex. Faced with Four Wed- dings and a Funeral, instead of saying `Ah-ha! A skilled director and witty writer have found a way to show off the limited charms of a hitherto undistinguished actor,' they decided Hugh Grant was a huge star, showered him with money and his own pro- duction company, set up his companion as producer, and then were surprised when he nose-dived into the toilet of history. His Four Weddings' director, meanwhile, whom I doubt if one in a hundred of the executive bozos could name, has quietly and unob- trusively come up with a minor gem in Donnie Brasco. It couldn't be more differ- ent — one scene alone boasts four killings and a dismemberment — except that, as in Four Weddings, Mike Newell brings a shrewd outsider's eye to bear on a world of elaborate social codes and rituals.

Brasco is a genre film — a gangster movie — but it transcends genre, and, in a vaguely post-modernish way, also com- ments on it: both Al Pacino as Lefty, a sag- ging minor Mafioso, and Johnny Depp as Donnie, the undercover Fed who wins his confidence, are sort of playing at gangsters, trying to be the kind of hoods they've seen in movies. Lefty is punctilious about gang- land's courtly etiquette and the proper use of gangster vernacular; Donnie explains in great detail to his FBI colleagues the vari- ous meanings with which a hoodlum can imbue the phrase `Fuhgeddaboudit'; on the other hand, Donnie's wife, unaware of what he does for a living, is mystified by the way her college-educated husband is sud- denly going around saying `dese' and `doze'.

As with the world of Four Weddings, you can't help feeling that the obsession with correct form is merely compensation for the unyielding monotony of their lives. Much of the time, like casual labourers, they're huddling on the sidewalk outside the local underworld hangout, waiting to see if the boss has any work for them. Despite having 'clipped' 26 punks in the course of his service to the Family, Pacino's Lefty finds his career stalled at junior-man- agement level and is continually passed over for promotion. His dress sense isn't exactly Reservoir Dogs: his mangy coat and collapsed pork-pie hat accomplish the not inconsiderable feat of giving Al Pacino the forlorn air of Bernie Winters; told he belonged to a gang, you'd assume it was the Crazy Gang. There's something rather sweet about the innocent pleasure these New York hoods derive from an assign- ment to Florida, as they lumber around the hotel tennis-court in outsize floral shirts (this is the 1970s).

On the whole, though, Newell directs against Paul Attanasio's droll script: instead of pointing up the jokes, he down- plays them, and thb result is a story whose characters derive their pathos from not knowing that they're funny. The film's stylistic ambiguity complements its moral one: in the surrogate father/son relation- ship of Pacino and Depp, the good man has something corrupt and dark in him, the evil man something good. Mafia films are usually stronger on the Family than on the family, but Newell's domestic moments are especially good: the final scene in Lefty's apartment is one of the best things Pacino's ever done. For his part, Donnie, being in deep cover, cannot tell Maggie and the kids what he does or where he is or why he comes home only every few weeks. On one of his surprise visits, the missus drags him off to a counselling session, where his explanation that he's an FBI agent is taken as a particularly flippant example of his deep psychological hostility to his marriage.

Maggie, incidentally, is played by Anne Heche, who acted Demi Moore off the screen (not too difficult, admittedly) in The Juror and will shortly be seen as the female lead in Volcano. Miss Heche is new, spirit- ed, and the camera loves her; She has naughty, flashing eyes, a wiggly walk, real breasts (an increasing rarity in Hollywood) and seems to speak each line with her entire body; she brings a compelling emo- tional truth to her role as the put-upon but devoted wife, all the more impressive in a week when she came out as a lesbian and announced that she's in a long-term rela- tionship with Ellen DeGeneres, star of the soon-to-be uncloseted sitcom Ellen. Celebrity lesbians always seem to wind up dating each other — kd lang, the famous singing lesbian, wrote 'Constant Craving' for Martina Navratilova, the famous tennis- playing lesbian — but, even so, Anne and Ellen are a landmark first: the first out les- bian couple in Hollywood history. As to how this will affect Miss Heche's career, most industry observers put it this way (I paraphrase wildly): male heterosexual executives find the thought of gay men faintly disgusting, but apparently they fan- tasise all the time about their leading ladies muff-diving each other; therefore, Miss Heche, as the only major Hollywood actress certifiably inclined that way, will become an even hotter property. Whatever the reason, she deserves it.