Picks and Pans Review: The Cotton Club

updated 12/17/1984 AT 01:00 AM EST

originally published 12/17/1984 AT 01:00 AM EST

Add this to the list of great movie opportunities missed. A speakeasy called the Cotton Club occupied a prime spot in Harlem from 1923 to 1936 (it's now a housing project). During those years the CC became a symbol for the Jazz Age. While the best black performers (Duke Ellington, Lena Home, Cab Calloway) took the stage, the white proprietor, mobster Owney Madden, permitted only whites to sit at the club's cramped tables. The glitz-and-goons audience mixed the aristocracies of showbiz (Chaplin, Durante, Gloria Swanson) and crime (Dutch Schultz, "Mad Dog" Coll, "Lucky" Luciano). What a rich subject, especially for Francis Coppola, who had Mario (The Godfather) Puzo and Pulitzer Prize-winner William (Ironweed) Kennedy to collaborate with him on the story. A $47 million budget bought a star cast, headed by Richard Gere and Gregory Hines, and top technicians to get the look perfect. Well, the look is perfect. And the sound of that matchless pre-Swing Era music is mesmerizing. But what happened to plot, character, theme? Harlemites used to line up outside the club during the Depression to ogle the elite. Coppola, with all his budget, never shows any sense of the club's place within the black community. And the story is a mess—dozens of characters in a futile search for a connecting link. Gere is cast once again as a pretty boy, a cornet player going nowhere until he saves the life of Dutch Schultz. The mob boss hires him to escort his tough-cookie mistress, played flatly by Diane Lane, so Dutch's wife won't suspect he's playing around. Naturally Gere and Lane fall in love, but he's soon off to Hollywood where he becomes a star playing a gangster he models on Schultz. Gere's sex appeal might be an asset if he weren't so smug about it. Worse, his character has little to do with the Cotton Club. The movie is on more solid ground when it stays closer to the club. Hines is a marvel when he takes his taps to the floor with his brother, Maurice, and vet hoofer Charles "Honi" Coles, 72. The best acting is on the fringes. British actor Bob Hoskins is smashingly effective as Madden, a gentle killer who loves horses, and Fred Gwynne makes something wonderfully touching out of Hoskins' henchman. But this gangster odd couple has the only involving relationship in the film. And the movie's best directorial touch (an assassination intercut with a dance) is a near lift from the climax of The Godfather. Sadly, what could have redeemed Coppola only confirms his decline. The Cotton Club is a shell of a movie—dazzling on the surface but hollow at the core. (R)

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