'BILLY BATHGATE" has arrived at last - trailing reports of a bloated $50 million budget and lots of trouble on the set, including extensive reshoots of key scenes. Is it another disaster on the order of "Ishtar" or "Heaven's Gate"? Or is this one of the "problem pictures" that prove to be just fine, like "Jaws" or "Dances With Wolves"?Now that it's here, "Billy Bathgate" turns out to be neither a home run nor a strike-out, but something in between. In box-office terms, it's likely to draw modest but respectable audiences - due partly to the marquee power of Dustin Hoffman, who plays the lead - and gradually make its money back through video sales and other earnings. As for its cinematic qualities, I think it stands with the year's more successful outings, bearing in mind that 1991 hasn't seen much artistry. The title character is a boy from the Bronx whose ambition is to be a gangster - not because he's bad at heart, but because it's 1935 and the Depression hasn't presented him with better options. He attracts the attention of Dutch Schultz, becomes a hanger-on, and gains the boss's confidence. When Dutch is about to stand trial for income-tax evasion. He assigns Billy to watch over his girlfriend, who becomes Billy's lover, putting the movie's good guys (relatively speaking) in danger of reprisals from the ir wrathful employer. "Billy Bathgate" has been adapted by screenwriter Tom Stoppard from one of E. L. Doctorow's less adventurous novels - one that tells a reasonably engrossing story but lacks the vision of "Ragtime" or the bite of "The Book of Daniel," earlier Doctorow works that have been turned into substantial movies. The movie version of "Billy Bathgate" is as straightforward as its source, but instead of being a limitation, this proves to be one of its main virtues. The picture steers away from slam-bang action scenes, elaborate period decor, and showy star performances. Rather it tells its story sincerely and directly, through superbly photographed images and detailed performances, refusing to let even so magnetic an actor as Hoffman commandeer the story as a personal showcase. SO why did it cost so much to make? Aside from the obvious assumption that Hoffman pocketed a sizable fee, it's anybody's guess. All that's certain is that "Billy Bathgate" will disappoint moviegoers eager to see those millions on the screen, but will please audiences who enjoy melodrama on a human scale, and who can handle a few scenes of gangster violence that seem all the more shocking for their brevity and abruptness. The picture was directed by Robert Benton, whose earlier work includes such relationship stories as "Kramer vs. Kramer" and "Places in the Heart," and filmed by Nestor Almendros, a master cinematographer whose gift for manipulating light and shadow lends an unexpectedly poetic dimension. Hoffman gives a skilled and unexpectedly restrained performance as Billy's boss, supported by a well-chosen cast including Loren Dean as the title character, Nicole Kidman as Dutch's girlfriend, Bruce Willis as his treac herous associate, and the gifted Steven Hill as an aging hoodlum who takes Billy under his wing. The ensemble brings the slender plot effectively and sometimes movingly to life. "Billy Bathgate" isn't a major movie, but it's far from the flopperoo speculation made it out to be.
Rated R for violence and language.