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City Hall Confusion

City Hall is a frustrating near-miss movie. On the plus side, it's got John Cusack in a lead role, sharp and intriguing character interplay and exciting depictions of political life. On the minus side, the story doesn't have the strength and conviction a political drama needs. And as the plot leads us to the heart of urban corruption, instead of traveling through a gothic maze, we take vague twists and turns, as though we're wandering through a mall.

John Cusack's character -- Kevin Calhoun, a deputy mayor of New York City -- is a bright-eyed boy, an eager, not-cripplingly idealistic young man on the move who considers his job with Mayor John Pappas (Al Pacino) both an honor and an education. The deputy mayor's job involves a lot of glad-handing, a little back scratching and the occasional threat, but these regular tasks are all pretty much aboveboard, and Calhoun can handle them without any soul-searching. He's savvy, he wears sharp but not flashy suits and seems to be going places -- possibly all the way to the White House on Pappas' coattails.

However, an ugly early-morning incident that leaves a drug dealer, an off-duty cop and a six-year-old boy dead becomes a scandal that could derail the Pappas machine. Calhoun, bent on damage control, decides to investigate the incident. What he discovers is corruption. Finally, he realizes he's dealing with immorality on a level that he can't stomach.

The plot is the stuff of standard political drama. Some of the elements, however, muddy the waters. For no clear reason, Calhoun is from Louisiana and frequently quotes Huey P. Long. One wonders if this is supposed to suggest that Cusack's country boy "let's do right" attitude is an homage to the Kingfish, and if he's presented as a cracker politician in contrast to the East Coast establishment. (The person Pappas quotes, and points to a portrait of, is legendary New York mayor Fiorella LaGuardia.) It's a confusing point -- why would an Italian mayor in New York have a Louisiana boy on staff? Sure, New York politics are typically ethnic affairs, but there aren't a lot of Cajuns voting in the five boroughs.

Co-scriptwriter Bo Goldman says he based the Calhoun/Pappas relationship on one he had with a Playhouse 90 producer who happened to be from Alligator, Mississippi. That's a sweet motive, but it's not one that serves the story well. Former New York deputy mayor Ken Lipper is credited with the original screenplay, and while his dramatizations may not be 100 percent accurate, his characters still have verve. But among the mobsters and crooked councilmen, Cusack's Calhoun, who's called "a cracker of the worst kind," just doesn't belong. Trying to keep up with Calhoun and the rest of the cast is like flipping between two similar but different movies on TV. Still, as in channel flipping, you're willing to put up with a little confusion, because you want to keep up with both stories.

Though their fit is a bit odd, the characters are uniformly engaging. Councilman Frank Anselmo (Danny Aiello), Vinnie Zapatti (Angel David), Judge Walter Stern (Martin Landau), the mayor's chief of staff Abe Goodman (David Paymer), mobster Paul Zapatti (Tony Franciosa) and the cop's widow Elaine Santos (Lauren Velez) all play their parts with a compelling flair. For grins, Aiello's councilman has a thing for Rodgers and Hammerstein. He sings out loud in restaurants and lip-synchs at the theater. Bits like this make the movie richer.

The whole web of corruption, however, is ragged. The dead drug dealer who killed the dead cop is a member of the Zapatti family. Fine. The dead drug dealer should not have been on the streets. Again, fine. Obviously, strings have been pulled. And if the deputy mayor just snooped around and found the string-pullers, fine -- there'd be suspense and he'd lose his innocence and we'd all have something entertaining for our money.

But Calhoun doesn't just snoop around. The action is thrown off balance by frequent speechmaking. Al Pacino can make a grand speech, but in this movie he makes far too many. His mayor either has snappy one-liners or lengthy orations. The public speeches, such as the one he makes at the six-year-old's funeral, belong; the dozen speeches he makes to his deputy mayor, however, do not. One or two would have made the point that he enjoys his role as mentor.

The action is also thrown off balance by Bridget Fonda, who plays an attorney who's out to do right by the widow of the dead cop. What she actually does is (1) be the chick in this all-guy movie and (2) offer some "lawyers are good" propaganda. Fonda's lady lawyer hooks up with Calhoun for no apparent reason, accompanies him while he finds out a few things he could have found out on his own -- and then she disappears from the film.

Fonda's role, like City Hall itself, shows promise, but doesn't really get anywhere. Nonetheless, this movie has something to offer anyone feeling a bit indulgent. John Cusack, for one, is fabulous. His accent is good, and even in moments where his character's motives aren't clear, he makes the moment work.

City Hall also offers some interesting content. The story is supposed to be about how things aren't simply black and white, but that life -- and, by extension, politics -- is lived in shades of gray. Mostly by telling instead of showing, City Hall gets at those shades of gray. The compromising politicians aren't necessarily greedy or power mad, they're simply trying to work things out -- they may even mean well.

City Hall is a film that asks us to feel sorry for officials who believe that they have to cross the line to do their job effectively. And while the actors manage a compelling argument, the film as a whole remains uneven. The ending in particular is pap -- the crooked simply fold up their tents and go home. Ultimately, though, unusual intentions and great work by a sterling cast make City Hall a movie that can be enjoyable -- and even, at times, stirring.

City Hall. Directed by Harold Becker. With John Cusack, Al Pacino and Bridget Fonda. Rated R. 112 minutes.

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