American Fable is ambitious, maybe too much so sometimes, but there's an intense pleasure in the boldness of the film's style.
One of the hazards of movie comedy is that it's almost impossible to be sure that what reads funny will look funny. "The Gang That Couldn't Shoot Straight," an uncertain comedy based on Jimmy Breslin's funny novel, supplies plenty of examples. We laughed when Breslin told us that one of the big responsibilities of a Mafia man's wife is to start his car in the morning - to be sure it wasn't wired with a bomb.
But when the movie uses this notion, It doesn't quite work as well. The Mafia wife gets into the car, crosses herself, starts it - and no bomb. Inside the house, the Mafia don is crouched under the breakfast table. When he hears the motor running, he stands up. But it simply isn't as funny on the screen as it was before.
Maybe part of the trouble is James Goldstone's direction, which tends toward the heavy-handed. Instead of putting the Mafia chief under the table, for example, why couldn't he have used a simple close-up, showing the guy closing his eyes, tensing, and then relaxing? This would have drawn the audience into a sympathetic bond with the character; by using slapstick exaggeration, Goldstone loses us.
We get lost more than once. The movie is loosely strung together around a small feud between old Baccala (Lionel Stander) and the young upstart Kid Sally (Jerry Orbach). There is a romantic subplot between Kid Sally's sister (Leigh Taylor-Young) and an Italian bicycle racer (Robert De Niro). But the feud is so casually delineated in the screenplay that we can hardly follow it, and romantic subplots (as everyone should know by now) are fast becoming the death of movie comedy.