Boardwalk Empire: Best TV Pilot of 2010 and Third-Best Scorsese Movie of This Century

by Tim Appelo
September 19, 2010 7:44 AM
14 Comments
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Thompson on Hollywood
I have ordered my TiVo Season Pass to Martin Scorsese and Terence Winter's Boardwalk Empire, which starts on HBO tonight. TOH critic Tim Appelo has already seen it. "(Steve) Buscemi and (Michael) Pitt have roles to kill for, their best career catapults yet," Appelo writes in his rave review:

In the Scorsese-directed kickoff episode of Boardwalk Empire (HBO, Sundays 9 pm), the nude flapper floozy Lucy (Paz de la Huerta) flops her boobs at the camera, bouncing atop Atlantic City gangster Enoch “Nucky” Thompson (Steve Buscemi), and bellowing nasally, “GIDDYAP, COWBOY!” “Stop with the ‘cowboy’ shit!” snaps Nucky.

Tony Soprano was a cowboy. So was everybody in Goodfellas. But even though HBO’s Atlantic City Prohibition epic was created by Sopranos co-auteur Terence Winter and produced by Scorsese, its hero is the least cowboylike gang boss you ever saw. He’s reticent, inward, ironic, wounded. Violence is a distasteful occasional necessity, but it irks him as much as his mistress’s bedroom theatrics. Nucky’s just a Christian businessman who tries to do good, make everybody rich, and make cases of illegal Canadian Club multiply like Jesus did the loaves and fishes.

“I could have you killed,” Nucky tells his protégé Jimmy Darmody (Michael Pitt), after Darmody lets the callow psycho Al Capone (Stephen Graham) bloodily bungle a job (masterfully staged by Scorsese). “Yeah, but you won’t,” says Darmody, who’s more like Michael Corleone than a Christopher Moltisanti-ish screwup. Buscemi and Pitt have roles to kill for, their best career catapults yet.

I’ll bet Boardwalk’s pilot is the best TV debut of 2010, and it’s also the third-best Scorsese movie of this century. It opens and closes with an iris shot, and Scorsese has a blast recreating Enoch’s epoch, channeling the brash, trashy yet elegant spirit of an oldtime mogul. This is gritty Warner Bros. gangland done up in ritzy Paramount style. His camera pans, dollies and swooshes past almost $20 million worth of radiant period detail: vast ads for Nut Tootsie Rolls, Chesterfield and Piedmont Cigarettes (“Not blended”). The multiple musical interludes are marvelous: the giddy Prohibition-first-night bash, Eddie Cantor popping eyes and cracking wise, a boardwalk barker hawking a too-naughty-for-tots girlie show, framed by more light bulbs than the Great White Way. This is the Atlantic City of the Temperance poem: “Heartless, godless, hell’s delight/ Crude by day and lewd by night/ Conscience dulled by demon rum/ Liquor, thy name’s delirium!”

Nucky is hunted by an IRS gumshoe (Michael Shannon), a religious nut like Chris Cooper in Breach, and menaced by a galaxy of New York and Chicago rivals, but the real emotional action is in the Nucky/Darmody bromance, and Nucky’s yen to help a bookish Irish immigrant mom (Kelly Macdonald) whose drunken husband whomps her. She steals every scene, even with Buscemi.

But Buscemi is the true news here. David Thomson called his pre-Boardwalk persona a “babyfaced thug, sleazeball, scumbag,” but now he’s the big thug, his baby face gone gaunt, and he makes the top-dog role his own. Buscemi won his first big part in the AIDS movie Parting Glances because he looked ill, yet vital. Now that he’s craggily aging, it’s a big risk to make him the lead gangster, when practically every predecessor has emanated animal vigor. But that’s what makes Nucky distinctive. Instead of a bullying, over-the-top performance, he’s under the radar, a sneak attack on your heart. It’s jujitsu acting, and it scores.

Boardwalk Empire takes its meticulous time setting up characters that will pay off later – the monster cherub Capone, World Series fixer Arnold Rothstein (Michael Stuhlbarg), black gang boss Chalky White (Michael Kenneth Williams, The Wire’s Omar). It probably packs in too much background detail – when Nucky’s mentor (Dabney Coleman) shows him Henry Ford’s book The International Jew: The World’s Foremost Problem, what’s the point, other than that it’s amazing that Ford wrote such a book and people bought it? And it will take a good three episodes to suck you into the many-stranded storyline.

But rich bits of past reality are why we watch Mad Men, which was more maddeningly slow on the narrative draw. The Wire required (and rewarded) the patience of a saint, and The Sopranos took longer than you remember to catch on. Give Boardwalk time, and it’ll take you away to another time.

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More: Directors, Reviews, TV, Martin Scorsese, HBO

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14 Comments

  • tiger tim | October 5, 2010 9:36 AMReply

    STILL MORE pointless, uninspired, anachronistic
    franchise slum 'product' from the long ago compelling,
    decades STALE Martin Scorsese...

  • Anne Thompson | September 27, 2010 4:07 AMReply

    After ep 2--which lacks the budget and Scorsese swirling cameras of the pilot--I'm hanging on to Steve Buscemi for dear life, although I am curious to see where Michael Pitt goes from here (Gretchen Mol as his showgirl mom was a surprise), and I am also expecting more from Michael Shannon's FBI man and Michael Stuhlbarg as Arnold Rothstein. OK. I guess I am hooked.

  • GuiltyFeat | September 26, 2010 10:51 AMReply

    I don't think we gained anything from having Scorsese involved in this. ALso I think Buscemi was totally outshone by Michael Pitt. I live-blogged the opener here: http://guiltyfeat.com/2010/09/21/boardwalk-empire-first-impressions/

  • M | September 20, 2010 7:51 AMReply

    Calling something the "third best Scorsese movie of this century" is faint praise. His output the last 10 years has been mediocre at best (The Departed) and laughable at worst (Gangs of New York).

    Here's hoping Boardwalk is actually his best work in decades...

  • Brian | September 20, 2010 7:36 AMReply

    A+!!! Wow, thank you! At least I'm good at something.

  • Keil Shults | September 20, 2010 7:00 AMReply

    Feels like days ago, since I've been reading a slew of TIFF and Boardwalk articles this past week. A+, however, for continuing to divert attention away from the points I made.

  • Brian | September 20, 2010 6:24 AMReply

    Days ago??? It was posted yesterday! "F" in time comprehension.

  • Keil Shults | September 20, 2010 6:11 AMReply

    I read this piece days ago, and had forgotten it mentions that someone else wrote it. But it doesn't change the points I was making.

  • t 2010 | September 20, 2010 5:31 AMReply

    STILL MORE pointless, decades stale, done-to-death
    franchise slum mafia 'product' from the once promising,
    NEVER moving, TOO LONG RICH ---Martin Scorsese.

    ---DON'T these Boomers EVER cross the threshold
    into ANYTHING????

  • Brian | September 20, 2010 5:08 AMReply

    "F" in reading comprehension, folks. Anne didn't write the review, Tim Appelo did, as Anne makes clear in the third sentence.

  • Keil Shults | September 20, 2010 4:36 AMReply

    I think she's saying that not only is it the best TV pilot of the year thus far, but also that she's betting it will prove superior to all the 2010 pilots that have not yet aired.

    As for the comment about Buscemi being the "true news here," I think she means that while we all expected the show to be impressive, it's always been uncertain if Buscemi can carry a series and/or play such a powerful, domineering character convincingly.

    Either way, I think that initial commented just woke up on the wrong side of the bed. Or, they have such a personal disdain for Ms. Thompson that they choose to pick apart her writing, rather than take the time to consider what she might have meant by it. Then again, there's always the possibility that they're just jealous she gets paid to see and write about movies, while they're stuck at home, with little to do but spew inane bile throughout the blogosphere...without being paid for it.

  • Brian | September 20, 2010 4:21 AMReply

    How historically accurate is this series? Has anyone weighed in on that yet? I've seen so many crappy movies about Prohibition-era crime that completely disregard history (De Palma's UNTOUCHABLES, anyone?) that I'm really eager for something that sticks to the facts. The great thing about Scorsese's GOODFELLAS is that it didn't embellish anything. The real story was dramatic, compelling and funny enough that they didn't need to pump it up with nonsense.

  • Vince | September 20, 2010 3:18 AMReply

    I don't know what the problem is with this reviewer I think the show was just fine.

    I was an extra in the boxing scenes, but my scenes sad to say were cut.

  • Chinianski | September 19, 2010 8:57 AMReply

    This is a very poorly written review. You write: "I’ll bet Boardwalk’s pilot is the best TV debut of 2010, and it’s also the third-best Scorsese movie of this century."

    That makes no sense. You'll bet against whom? It's either the best or it's not. Take a stand.

    Explain: "But Buscemi is the true news here." Again, what does that mean exactly? He is the star of the series, so it is hardly news. I don't even want to touch the use of the word "bromance."

    I could go on all day but instead I'll suggest read your prose out loud before pushing the publish button. It'll save you a lot of embarrassment and us a lot of pain.

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