Bugsy Malone (1976)
Directed by Alan Parker

Artistic & Entertainment Value
* * ½

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Afraid of being ruined by a rival gang, Fat Sam (John Cassisi), a Prohibition era New York mob boss who runs a speakeasy hidden behind a bookstore, has his singer girlfriend, Tallulah (Jodie Foster), convince a streetwise hustler named Bugsy Malone (Scott Baio) to help him out. Fortunately, Bugsy, having been robbed of the two hundred dollars he was planning to use to buy train tickets to California for himself and his own girlfriend, Blousey (Florrie Dugger), is only too willing to come to Fat Sam's aid.

Alan Parker's musical Bugsy Malone, which is performed exclusively by children, is a truly bizarre film. While I cannot say that it is likely to impress the viewer, it is so odd that it is worth watching.

The idea of gangsters, molls, and various lowlifes being played by children is certainly unusual and seeing the young stars of Bugsy Malone posturing, arguing, singing, conniving, and the like is frequently entertaining. At different times, the viewer is treated to the spectacle of various juvenile hoodlums fighting over who controls the streets of New York, of Tallulah attempting to seduce Bugsy, of a car chase through a forest, of a wild food fight in a speakeasy, and of more weird scenes besides these.

Sadly, other than the novelty of watching children portraying gangsters, there is not much in Bugsy Malone for which the film can be highly recommended. The performances of most of the young actors are awkward, although Jodie Foster does acquit herself well, even if she is not given much screen time. The songs, all of which are actually performed by adults, are enjoyable in a disconcerting way, but none of them are especially memorable. The dances are surprisingly well choreographed, but, again, are never impressive. The story, though intermittently fun, is entirely predictable and, frankly, does eventually grow somewhat tedious, and the dialogue, while enlivened with several clever turns of phrase, is occasionally a little too syrupy.

In fact, the film's worst fault is its incessant cuteness. It really is absolutely packed with innumerable falsely sweet details. Instead of shooting one another with firearms, for example, Parker's characters use splurge guns, which discharge large globs of gooey cream, and, rather than driving cars, they travel in vehicles that, though shaped like cars, are moved by means of pedals.

This forced adorableness, by incessantly reminding the viewer that he is watching an adult's vision of children playing rather than children actually playing, keeps him from immersing himself in the film's fictional world. Even had Parker presented the children playing as children do, however, the movie still probably would not have been entirely successful. When an adult plays with other adults, whether he is an athlete competing in some sport, an actor playing in a film, or a priest performing a ritual, he generally absorbs himself completely in the role he has taken on in a way a child usually cannot. Unlike a child, who, when playing make believe, always remembers who he is and that he is only playing, an adult can forget himself entirely. As though possessed, he becomes the character whose role he has assumed in his game. He identifies with that role and believes that that is who he really is. Had the director allowed his young cast members to play as adults play, had he created a world with its own rules, a game, so to speak, in which the actors disappeared into their characters, he could have made the viewer forget himself in his engagement with it. Instead of doing so, however, he merely presents his often saccharine idealization of children's games. Consequently, the moviegoer is never able to participate in this particular game, as a mesmerized spectator, and cannot immerse himself in its unique reality.

While Bugsy Malone is not a good movie, it is so weird and distinctive that watching it is not, by any means, a waste of time. The viewer may not be captivated by the film, but it is unlikely he will forget it.

Review by Keith Allen

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