When the city slips from view, however -- when the story travels upstate, or when Mayor John Pappas (Al Pacino) sits on a couch in his office talking to his young aide Kevin Calhoun (John Cusack) -- the movie turns, as if by narrative tropism, toward clich. The mayor is wise in the ways of the world, and only a little corrupt; he holds the genuine good of the city near to his heart, but he is not perfect.
Young Calhoun, on the other hand, belongs to a long line of Hollywood's righteous crusaders who demand perfection. He's the young man who's unwilling to tolerate a little evil for a lot of good, and when he catches an off odor from a cop-killing case, he follows it with the single-minded determination of a bloodhound. He simply can't help himself.
Halfway through the picture, Calhoun becomes the center of the story, and the movie slowly begins to strangle in the intricate tangle of its too-numerous plot twists and hitches. Cusack is a good actor, but Calhoun isn't much of a role. His only interesting feature is that he's from Louisiana, which gives Cusack a chance to speak with a Southern accent. Although he does so creditably, it's still like listening to Keanu Reeves do a British accent in Bram Stoker's Dracula: Cusack's concentration is palpable, yet he always seems on the verge of forgetting the accent and slipping back into a flat, twangy American patois.
Apart from the drawl and a modest trove of Huey Long lore, Calhoun seems more yuppie than Louisianan -- he's just another young guy in a suit trying to make it in the big city. As he drones in the unfortunate, faux-Fitzgeraldian voice-over that opens and closes the film, "In New York, you have to be willing to be lucky."
Lucky, or disillusioned? It is a fact that youthful idealism does not long survive intact in the heavy seas of big-city politics. Some of the movie's best scenes, shot in a rough, Hill Street Blues style, show men at work building the city. They're crooked, greedy little men -- ward politicos, real estate developers, mob bosses -- each after his slice of the pie. They scheme and plot at coffee shops and diners, with bacon grease smeared on their florid lips. But while they believe they're controlling the city, in fact it's the other way around: The city uses them, their energy, their rivalries, even their small-mindedness, to build itself, to grow, to live. The city is organic in a way they simply don't understand.
Only Mayor Pappas seems to have much grasp of the urban synergy, and he rides it like a surfer on a good wave, knowing that if he gets a bit of salt spray in his face now and then, it's a small price to pay. His is the idealism of maturity -- he understands and accepts that the moral universe isn't black and white but a welter of grays, ambiguous choices, soggy middle ground. He accepts, too, his ambitions -- to be governor, then president -- as consistent with the betterment of the city. He understands what he's doing, even if Calhoun doesn't.
The movie opens with a gunfight that leaves a cop, a dope dealer, and a 6-year-old boy dead under the el tracks in Brooklyn. It's an all-too-typical inner-city scene, but in this case it opens like a secret trap door to expose a web of connections among city government, political organizations, business interests, and organized crime that's as distasteful -- and unsurprising -- as rats in the sewer.
The dead dealer is the nephew of a don (Tony Franciosa), who's working with a corrupt party boss, Frank Anselmo (Danny Aiello), to milk a proposed commercial project in Manhattan. The mob doesn't like all the press, and working through Aiello, the gangsters hatch a plot to discredit the dead police officer.
But there are complications. One of them is Calhoun's discovery of the drug dealer's probation report, which seems to have been doctored. Another is the arrival on the scene of a tenacious young lawyer, Marybeth Cogan (Bridget Fonda), who's representing the dead cop's estate. She and Calhoun take a shine to one another and eventually find themselves on a truth-seeking odyssey to an upstate prison.
Too much going on here. The script (one of whose four writers is Nicholas Pileggi, of GoodFellas fame) unravels; the picture loses its way. Fonda's character is particularly gratuitous; she's there purely to give Cusack a love interest to pant after, but nothing much happens between them. (Perhaps he was as frightened as I was by her chewing-on-ice smile.)
Pacino, meanwhile, whose character is the movie's ethical fulcrum, disappears for great stretches at a time. He's at his best early on, when a political crisis erupts in the wake of the little boy's death; at the funeral, in a predominantly black church, he gives a eulogy that rises to a chest-thumping crescendo. The city is a palace, he tells the mourners in the rolling cadences and staccato flourishes of a preacher, a palace that belongs to all of them.
It's a fine, poignant moment. Otherwise, Pacino doesn't seem like a real mayor, and his raspy voice is neither seductive nor stirring. He seems, in fact, like one of the hoods who flit around his administration -- shadowy moths at the edge of the lamplight. He's too small; Cusack too pale and one-dimensional: Who's running the show?
The picture ends with an absurd paean to political apprenticeship; it's like the end of a TV movie -- a neat knot desperately tied from too many strings of human frailty and cupidity. The city, meanwhile -- a vast amalgam of history and lives -- watches amusedly as its transient tenants play their absorbing games.
City Hall opens Fri, Feb. 16, at area theaters.