Boardwalk Empire Mob Movie Memory Lane: Public Enemies
Whether or not Boardwalk Empire adds up to something greater than its stuffy (and expensive), period-perfect pilot remains to be seen. What doesn't, however, is the fact that the new HBO series from Martin Scorsese and Terence Winter is forged in the pinky rings of other mafia movies. Ahead, take a stroll down memory lane with Movieline to see which of your favorites got their cut during the pilot.
Let's start at the beginning: As directed by Martin Scorsese, the pilot for Boardwalk Empire felt like a television version of the director's greatest hits. It goes to reason then that the episode opened and closed with a pinhole zoom on the action, a technique Scorsese started using to great effect in The Departed. In that film it was used to show the world closing in on Matt Damon's rat; here it seemed like it was used to be cool. That's already a problem for Boardwalk Empire: Too much of the action was done for the sake of being done, not for the sake of creating a compelling character drama. It's only the pilot, but this obviously bears watching going forward.
If you scratched your head when you found out that Steve Buscemi was playing the lead on Boardwalk Empire, you're not alone. Buscemi is great in the Peter Lorre-like role, but he's not the first person you'd think of when casting imposing mobster figureheads. Still, quibbles aside, the way Boardwalk Empire presents Buscemi's Nucky Thompson is similar to how Casino presented Ace Rothstein. He's an outsider trying to stay above the insiders to diminishing returns. The series simply doesn't work when Buscemi acts "tough," but the more Boardwalk Empire has Nucky say things like "I could have you killed," in that pathetic Steve Buscemi whine, the better chance he has at being a believable crime boss. Note: Michael Stuhlbarg (of A Serious Man fame) plays Arnold Rothstein to similar effect.
It's fitting that Boardwalk Empire premiered on the twentieth anniversary of the release of Goodfellas, if for no other reason than: Duh. There were the lengthy tracking shots, of course, but those felt more reminiscent of Scorsese's work in The Aviator than anything else -- specifically a jaunt into Babette's nightclub on the eve of Prohibition. Still, in Jimmy Darmody (Michael Pitt), Boardwalk Empire has found its Henry Hill. Straddling both sides of the law and striving to be a gangster, Pitt's Darmody has all the ambition of Hill, but with more brains. He's immediately the most compelling character on the show, if only because he doesn't feel like an actor "playing" mobster (see: Vincent Piazza's arch and ridiculous portrayal of Lucky Luciano).
First rule of mob movies: If you're an abusive husband who beats his pregnant wife, you're going to get brutally murdered. Call it the Carlo Corollary. As such, say hello (and goodbye) to Margaret Schroeder's (Kelly MacDonald) abusive husband, Max. He beats Margaret so badly that she has a miscarriage -- the true stomach-churning moment of the pilot for obvious reasons -- and in return gets beaten to death and dumped into the ocean. Come to think of it, that also recalls another seminal mafia pop culture moment...
...Big Pussy! Though, actually, he wasn't beaten to death, just shot execution-style. Details, details. Elsewhere, Boardwalk Empire found most of its Sopranos references in the casting: Tom Aldredge (Carmela's father) as an FBI field head and Greg Antonacci (Phil Leotardo's underboss, Butch) appeared in the pilot.
Speaking of casting: Stephen Graham is great and all, but after playing Baby Face Nelson in Public Enemies, having him here as Al Capone feels gratuitous. As does his trying-very-hard Noo Yawk accent. He's perfectly short-fused, but it has been done before. By him. Just last year.
Overall: The pilot of Boardwalk Empire was a veritable feast of mob movie references. Will the series feature as many? Hopefully! Check back here next week to see if episode two slept with the fishes.