For Martin Scorsese, the 1990s were bookended by a smashing success and a disappointing failure. Goodfellas (1990), in addition to being a box office hit, earned one Academy Award and five more nominations and is now frequently mentioned in the same breath as The Godfather when people talk about gangster movies. Internet Movie Database users have ranked it Scorsese's best movie and the 15th most beloved movie of all time. (IMDb users are insane, of course; Taxi Driver is Scorsese's best film. I mean, come on.)
On Oct. 22, 1999, though, after filling the decade with Cape Fear (1991), The Age of Innocence (1993), Casino (1995), and Kundun (1997), Scorsese released Bringing Out the Dead, and everything came to a screeching halt. Reviews were generally positive but not ecstatic, and it made only $16 million at the box office before being entirely forgotten. It was the director's first film since After Hours (1985) not to get a single Oscar nomination. Ask a film buff now to name 10 Scorsese movies and I bet he overlooks this one.
My review, in which I gave it a B-minus, was typical of my output at the time: full of shallow observations about something I didn't know much about. Oh, I was fine when it came to summer blockbusters and cookie-cutter studio productions. I knew enough about movies to write with some confidence on those matters. But when it came to Scorsese, I was out of my element. I hadn't even seen most of his films. I'm not 100 percent certain I'd seen Taxi Driver at that point, and I know I hadn't seen Goodfellas, Casino, or Raging Bull. (I have now, don't worry.) But it's not like I could open my review of Bringing Out the Dead by saying, "You know, I've heard a few things about this Scorsese fellow, and apparently he's quite a filmmaker!"
Instead, I took the tack, as I often did in those days, of merely trying to sound like I knew what I was talking about. That's really half the work of being a film critic: convincing the reader that you can be trusted. It helps if you actually can be trusted, but that's not mandatory.
Here's what I wrote about Bringing Out the Dead:
Nicolas Cage has made a career out of playing semi-psychotic losers. Whether they're comical (Raising Arizona, Honeymoon in Vegas) or serious (everything else), he has a knack for starting out just slightly off-kilter, and winding up completely deranged. Occasionally, he returns from insanity and rejoins normal society. Bringing out the Dead, a visually stimulating but intellectually mediocre film from director Martin Scorsese, is one in which Cage gets to come back again. In fact, if the film is "about" anything (and that's debatable), it's about Cage's character's struggle to forgive himself and to return to himself.
I love the implication that Raising Arizona and Honeymoon in Vegas were the ONLY comedies Nicolas Cage had ever made, that "everything else" was serious. Why would I have said such a thing? Was I so certain of my Cage knowledge that I didn't even bother to look at his IMDb page before making a sweeping declaration? Ugh, I hate 1999 me.
Then there's this:
Cage plays Frank Pierce, an EMT who made a mistake and allowed a girl to die. Now, she haunts him -- not in a literal, Sixth Sense kind of way, but figuratively. He occasionally sees her face everywhere; other times, he doesn't see her at all.
"He occasionally sees her face everywhere; other times, he doesn't see her at all." What? So sometimes he sees her all the time, but sometimes he doesn't? I must have been channeling Paul Rudd in Anchorman: "Sixty percent of the time, it works every time."
But enough of my bad writing. Let's look at my bad ideas.
The dialogue is often darkly funny, but somehow we expect more intelligence and meaning out of Scorsese. For all its flash and substance -- and the film is undeniably interesting -- it really doesn't amount to much. Cage is strong, as usual, in this role, though the sheer oddness of the film and the look-how-cool-I-am style of the director makes it difficult to connect with him. Even when he arrives at a resolution in his life, about all we can do is shrug our shoulders and say, "Good for him," because we're still busy trying to make sense of the whole meandering thing.
Notice how I talk about Scorsese as if I'd seen a lot of his movies, and then suggest that his style here reeks of showboating. Earlier I called the film "visually stimulating"; now I seem to be saying that Scorsese is trying too hard to be cool. Well, which is it?
I've now seen most of Scorsese's films more than once. I've watched Bringing Out the Dead again, too, and while I wouldn't claim it's one of his best movies, it certainly deserves a better fate than being forgotten or ignored. No one is better than Scorsese at depicting the garish, sleazy purgatory that is middle-of-the-night New York City (or that was New York City in the early 1990s, when the film is set), and purgatory is exactly the right setting for this film's protagonist, a man punishing himself for his failure to achieve victory over Death.
Memories of another unstable nocturnal creature, Travis Bickle, remind us that Bringing Out the Dead is no Taxi Driver, that Nicolas Cage is no mid-'70s Robert De Niro, and that Scorsese's respectable base hits are never as brutally powerful as his home runs. But those base hits are useful, too.
Bringing Out the Dead
1999 Eric says: Nicolas Cage ... has a knack for starting out just slightly off-kilter, and winding up completely deranged. Occasionally, he returns from insanity and rejoins normal society. Bringing out the Dead, a visually stimulating but intellectually mediocre film from director Martin Scorsese, is one in which Cage gets to come back again. In fact, if the film is "about" anything (and that's debatable), it's about Cage's character's struggle to forgive himself and to return to himself.... The dialogue is often darkly funny, but somehow we expect more intelligence and meaning out of Scorsese. For all its flash and substance -- and the film is undeniably interesting -- it really doesn't amount to much. Grade: B-
2009 Eric says: Nicolas Cage is in unhinged mode again as an EMT driving himself crazy with guilt in Bringing Out the Dead, another Scorsese-directed depiction of neon-nightmare Manhattan. Cage's story may not be as compelling as that of certain taxi drivers I could name, but Scorsese never fails to keep things interesting with healthy doses of gallows humor and colorful supporting characters. Even an "average" walk through Scorsese's New York is memorable. Grade: B
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Eric's Ten-Year Itch appears every Monday at Film.com. You can visit Eric at his website.