Donnie Brasco (1997)


*. Yes, we’d been here before. Indeed this film as a project was put off for years because they didn’t want it to go head-to-head with Goodfellas and other mob movies scheduled to come out at the same time. And of course just after its release came the debut of The Sopranos.
*. The conventions of the gangster genre are now so well known you can play them on autopilot: the new guy who is undercover, the scene(s) where his cover is almost blown, the talk of his getting “made,” the games of hierarchy, the bloody disposal of the bodies, etc.
*. And this is a movie that’s aware of its status. It came out the same year as Jackie Brown, another movie with a clear throwback vibe (Donnie Brasco is set in the ’70s, while Jackie Brown just borrows stars and music from the ’70s). The main characters are spending a lot of time thinking about their retirement. Jackie and Lefty are old, past their prime, tired of the game.
*. Of course the big difference is that Jackie is smart and Lefty Ruggiero is a small step above being a comic moron, lounging around his apartment in a red track suit that according to director Mike Newell sent audiences into gales of laughter.
*. One of the hardest things to do is to play such a character and make us feel sympathy for him. Mike Newell: “to make somebody who is constantly entertaining and moving out of a stupid person is very difficult.”


*. Lefty isn’t a total loser, but he’s a flunky and this is the flunky’s tale. Ruggiero is trying to act like he’s still a big shot in front of Donnie but can barely screw up enough courage to ask him if he wants to go steady. He won’t reveal his own ignorance of not knowing what a “fugazy” is (in fact it’s a made-up word that means nothing), is constantly trying to cover up his malapropisms (which are in turn suggestive of some kind of brain damage), bums money he has no intention of or ability to pay back, and dresses poorly but likes to give Donnie fashion advice. When his coq au vin bursts into flame he has to get his girlfriend to take care of it, which she does by simply putting a lid over the pan.
*. Pacino is well cast as such a figure: older, smaller, and feeling tired in the role. Despite his reputation as a hit man (inflated in his telling of it?), Lefty seems gun shy and averse to violence. Newell says he was thinking of Death of a Salesman while he was filming, and there’s no denying the similarity between Lefty and Willy Loman. Both are veterans who have gotten nowhere, “low men” on the totem pole. They’ve busted their hump for nothing. Not even a warm spot on the pavement to curl up on.


*. Newell: “in the end Lefty believes Donnie because he wants to.” This misses something important. Lefty believes in Donnie because, as Donnie puts it to him, he has to. At the end he is so invested in Donnie that he has no choice.
*. Then there’s Johnny Depp. I don’t hate Johnny Depp because he’s beautiful, but I really find his doll face out of place here. And isn’t looking out of place a big problem for someone who is supposed to be an undercover FBI agent?
*. His character is also hard to buy. I couldn’t relate to Joe/Donnie’s dilemma. He obviously becomes compromised through his bonding with Lefty, but it seems to me that a real FBI agent wouldn’t have had this problem.
*. In fact, despite the title this is every bit Pacino’s movie. Depp and Anne Heche aren’t as interesting as they should be together, and they have little chemistry. This is not Heche’s fault. Depp has always struck me as a strangely asexual figure. He’s good looking, but a cutie-pie. He doesn’t look like he’s about to fuck his wife’s brains out. Meanwhile Heche has no good lines, and her character never rises much above the conventional long-suffering wife. In the featurette on the making of the film included with the DVD Joe Pistone admits her character got short-changed.


*. During the DVD commentary Newell remarks how much he hates filming conversations taking place in a car. “I hate cars. There’s no director in the world who doesn’t hate cars. They’re restrictive and there’s no new way of shooting them.” I wonder if this is true, or if a new way just hasn’t been discovered yet.
*. Michael Madsen likes to keep busy, doesn’t he? One of the good things about being a character actor is you can get plugged into roles like this so easily.


*. It’s well done in all departments, but this is finally one of those movies that is all about a single performance. Despite being a bit slow, Lefty is finally a more complicated character than Donnie. He’s a man who’s aware of his limitations, and aware of his inability to deal with them. Are his final words to his wife, telling her not to wait up because “I don’t know how long I’m gonna be,” a conscious echo of Lawrence Oates leaving the expedition’s tent? He’s played out and knows it. The dreams of a Floridian Vegas, or just sailing off into the sunset, can no longer be indulged. Isn’t this the most tragic of ends? To be without hope even in our dreams? What else is there but a dignified exit?


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