With just three episodes left to go in its first season, the debate over ‘Boardwalk Empire’ is coming down to one person: Steve Buscemi.
He’s the star of the HBO gangster series (seen Sunday nights at 9/8c), playing the role of Nucky Thompson, fictionalized boss of all that is corrupt and criminal in 1920s Atlantic City. In the show, Buscemi has more screen time than anyone, which means the series’ success depends more on him than any other member of its sprawling ensemble cast.
And some critics aren’t buying Buscemi in the role of leading man, his highest-profile role yet after years as a supporting actor best known for playing shifty lowlifes such as the kidnapper Carl in ‘Fargo’ and Tony Soprano’s ex-con cousin, Tony Blundetto, in ‘The Sopranos.’
“Steve Buscemi doesn’t seem cut out for the part,” writes Brian Moylan on Gawker.com this week. “He doesn’t have the menace, ambiguity, or general magnetism to turn the character into a great anti-hero in the vein of Tony Soprano or ‘Deadwood’s’ Al Swearengen.”
Moylan says of the whole series: “It’s just not good.”
Meanwhile, another critic – Mary McNamara of the Los Angeles Times – declares Buscemi to be the “Absolute Best Thing” about the show. For her, the fact that Buscemi doesn’t look like your average leading man in a gangster flick (think Robert De Niro in ‘The Godfather Part II’ and years later in ‘GoodFellas,’ or Al Pacino in the ‘Godfather’ movies) makes him a more compelling gangster than his predecessors.
“[Buscemi’s] presence, and his performance, remind us what power and corruption actually look like most of the time, and it isn’t a young Robert De Niro,” McNamara writes. “Buscemi’s portrait of power is more chilling and thought-provoking than the average gangster because it doesn’t let Nucky, or the audience, off the hook. You can loathe him because he’s corrupt, feel for him because he is human or a little of both. But you don’t get to root for him just because he’s good-looking.”
Our own take on ‘Boardwalk’ is to agree with some of the criticism and take issue with others. On the subject of Buscemi – yes, he has taken some getting used to in the Nucky role. He’s a slender presence who wouldn’t seem to embody the physical toughness you’d think would be necessary to be boss of a lawless town like Atlantic City in the Prohibition era. But McNamara has a good point: Why should all our film gangsters conform to what we think they should look like?
Other critics have taken aim at the sluggishness of the show’s story and we agree – the show does sometimes suffer from an agonizing slowness. And some critics have turned thumbs-down on various cast members they find unconvincing, particularly Michael Pitt as the young, rising gangster Jimmy Darmody. That’s a matter of taste – we happen to think he’s just about the best character in the show. And now that he’s teamed with the badly disfigured World War I vet Richard Harrow, Jimmy has become even more interesting. For that matter, Jack Huston (of Hollywood’s illustrious Huston family) is sensational playing Harrow in that unsettling prosthetic mask.
We also love Michael Kenneth Williams as Chalky White, Kelly Macdonald as Margaret Schroeder, and Michael Shannon as the creepy Prohibition agent Nelson Van Alden.
The bottom line might be that ‘Boardwalk Empire’ has its flaws, yet we cannot seem to stop watching it. It’s already been renewed for a second season, so it’s sticking around for a while, whether some critics like it or not.
Have you been watching ‘Boardwalk Empire’? What do you think of Steve Buscemi? And what’s your opinion of the show – thumbs up or thumbs down?