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Ken Lipper turned up on Charlie Rose’s talk show a few weeks ago to flack for City Hall, which he co-scripted and co-produced. In the few moments that Rose, the Señor Wences of interviewers, permitted him to speak, Lipper summarized his résumé. A Bronx-born childhood pal of Al Pacino, he received a law degree from Harvard and worked for the U.S. Department of Commerce before shifting to the investment business. After partnerships at Lehman Brothers and Salomon Brothers, he accepted Ed Koch’s 1983 offer to serve as a deputy mayor of New York. Three years later, he opened his own $3.5-billion investment management firm, Lipper & Co.

Sated with money and power, Lipper has now set his sights on filmmaking. (Why must the rich insist upon colonizing creativity, the only thing that most artists possess, apart from their poverty?) His first taste of show biz came when Oliver Stone hired him to serve as technical consultant on Wall Street. That cartoonish, inexplicably praised movie apparently convinced him that anybody is capable of writing a screenplay, and so he set about penning his own, based on his experiences as a public servant. An off-Broadway production of Antigone provided him with a theme—the convolutions of authority—which he spent three years shaping into a contemporary story. Co-producer Ed Pressman brought in three additional writers to beef up Lipper’s screenplay—Nicholas Pileggi, an expert on organized crime, Paul Schrader, a specialist in urban angst, and Bo Goldman, a hack whose credits include Dick Tracy and Scent of a Woman. (Pity poor Sophocles, who had to go it alone.)

City Hall hasn’t turned out half as bad as this ominous genesis would indicate. The film focuses on the repercussions of an accidental killing—a 6-year-old black schoolboy caught in the cross fire between a small-time drug dealer and a loose-cannon cop. The aftershocks of this incident, magnified by the media, affect the lives of some of the most powerful figures in New York—Mafia chieftain Paul Zapatti (Tony Franciosa), Brooklyn Democratic Party boss Frank Anselmo (Danny Aiello), Judge Walter Stern (Martin Landau), and, ultimately, John Pappas (Pacino), “the best mayor the city ever had.”

This intricate story, rather cumbersomely narrated by Pappas’ young deputy mayor, Kevin Calhoun (John Cusack), is artfully structured, complex yet always coherent, and smoothly integrated with several intriguing subthemes: the mayor’s efforts to lure the Democratic National Convention to Manhattan; the compromises necessary to maintain a political coalition; the difficulty of governing a metropolis plagued by too much crime and too little money. Director Harold Becker efficiently manages to keep all of these balls in the air until the film’s muddled climax, when they come crashing to the pavement.

Becker previously collaborated with Pacino on the erotic thriller Sea of Love, another engrossing movie spoiled by a botched denouement. Although responsible for clunkers like Taps and The Boost, he knows how to keep things moving and is able to bring out the best in Pacino, who these days appears to have a bottomless appetite for work. (He’s appeared in four films released since Christmas.) Pacino’s Pappas is a charismatic performance modeled on former mayors La Guardia and Koch (as well as on also-ran Cuomo) and, I suspect, on one of the actor’s mentors, the late Joseph Papp, founder of New York’s Public Theater. With his dark, soulful eyes and mane of elaborately coiffed black hair, Pacino has the wounded, aesthetic mien of an obsessed concert violinist. Apart from one humiliatingly bogus sequence that no actor could possibly carry off, he’s compelling as a man of conscience struggling to run “a city that doesn’t function, in a world that doesn’t know right from wrong.”

Unlike Pacino, a diminutive actor with immense presence, Cusack is a lumbering, moon-faced performer who barely registers on screen. As Calhoun, the mayor’s idealistic, Louisiana-bred protégé, he is unable to sustain an accent and fails to provide the necessary dynamics in his numerous colloquies with Pappas. The naive sweetness of Cusack’s youthful appearances in The Sure Thing and Say Anything has disappeared, and nothing has replaced it. Typecast veteran character actors Aiello and Landau slip comfortably into roles that, by now, they could perform in their slumber. Third-billed Bridget Fonda is stuck with the thankless function of “the girl in the picture,” a young attorney working for the deceased boy’s family. As such, she is only allotted enough screen time to scowl and flash her Chiclet smile, though there’s little indication that she’d be capable of anything more taxing. The supporting cast offers some surprises for sharp-eyed viewers: erstwhile opera diva Roberta Peters as Aiello’s wife, Senator Ernest F. Hollings as—you guessed it—a senator, and musical comedy soubrette Sally Mayes as a diner waitress.

For nearly two hours, the shock waves of the child’s killing spread to the highest reaches of government, building to a climactic confrontation that never materializes. At the moment when the film’s myriad strands should fuse in a dramatic resolution, the four screenwriters cop out in yet another of those inane redemptive affirmations that make current Hollywood movies so unsatisfying. At the public preview I attended, you could feel the audience, which was solidly responsive to the film until that point, disengaging. There was no applause when the final credits rolled.

Even more damaging, though, is Pacino’s set piece at the movie’s midpoint. Overriding the advice of his staff, Pappas insists on attending the boy’s funeral at a black church. The congregation is mutely hostile, viewing the mayor as a symbol of the city’s liability for the child’s death. Ignoring the counsel of his advisors, Pappas mounts the altar and begins an extemporaneous speech, accepting personal responsibility for the killing to a room filled with unresponsive faces. As the oration continues, he gradually slips into the rhythms of a black church sermon, complete with incantatory repetitions and call-and-response. As his rhetorical style ascends from Al Sharpton to Jesse Jackson to Dr. King, the congregation’s antipathy dissolves; their frozen faces melt into tearful expressions of acceptance and compassion. Stepping down from the altar, he’s greeted with heartfelt embraces, having reduced the mourners to jelly.

The sequence is intended to demonstrate the populist mayor’s gift for quelling the pain of his citizens, and Pacino plays it for all it’s worth—which, alas, is less than nothing. The implicit racism of this manipulative episode, which depicts an assembly of disconsolate black people as brainless dupes—a massive O.J. Simpson jury—is cringingly reprehensible. One is left wondering how many shameless screenwriters were required to concoct this meretricious scene, and why an actor of Pacino’s stature and sensitivity agreed to appear in it. CP