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Smaller Than Life

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It must be said that Bugsy has more fun than anyone else in this movie. Eric Roberts's proclivity to excess is actually encouraged. LaPaglia's Luciano will enjoy himself intermittently, say, when he's softening up Sicily for an allied invasion while on sabbatical from the federal pen. But Meyer . . . well,
a cunning Dreyfuss restrains his own tendency toward overmuch; an audit is an audit, even of your own turpitudes. After all, Meyer rationalizes, he never shot anybody, personally.

Mamet insinuates that organized crime -- like organized religion, organized labor, the army, or the boxing ring -- is just another launching pad for upwardly mobile immigrants. Accordingly, we can think of Bugsy's Social Darwinism as primitive accumulation leading to the laissez-faire stage of capitalism, which then evolves into the higher monopolistic forms of Luciano's corporate-syndicalist vision, which then requires Lansky's sort of managerial revolution. As well as money, what's laundered are class and social origins.

But maybe, in wanting some Spinoza to spice my Lansky, I'm as meretricious as Hollywood. Are Jewish gangsters supposed to be more interesting or intellectual than Italians, just because Warren Beatty and Harvey Keitel played Bugsy before Eric Roberts, and E. L. Doctorow and William S. Burroughs wrote novels about Dutch Schultz, and Scott Fitzgerald's Great Gatsby seems as crucial to our mythic imagination as Horatio Alger's Ragged Dick? Gangsters show up, too, in the novels of Saul Bellow and William Kennedy. It's as if, in an American literature of loners and losers, of deer-slayers, Lone Rangers, private eyes, and Huck Finns, we must always code our romance with money in fables of the urban outlaw, or end up as dead salesmen.


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