It was inevitable that Meyer Lansky get the gangster biopic treatment, and considering Lansky’s special place in the annals of the American underworld, Eytan Rockaway’s version of that life is disappointingly generic. A Jew and proud of it (but devoutly secular), Lansky was a financial wizard, a genius with numbers who parlayed his accounting skills into a position at the upper levels of organized crime for a large chunk of the mid-20th century. He single-handedly developed Cuba’s casino business before Castro dismantled it, and then had a hand in inventing Las Vegas with his protege Bugsy Siegel. More importantly, while he also allegedly had a hand in a lot of murders—at one point he led the wittily named hit squad Murder Inc.—he was never indicted for anything more serious than tax evasion, and died of lung cancer in his 80s in Miami. The movie, in fact, is about him soliciting a writer, a fictional conceit of Rockaway’s, to pen his biography, but according to his rules, which have less to do with making him look good for prosperity than with giving him at least some control over his legacy.
In that regard, Rockaway’s best, perhaps only, good decision was hiring Harvey Keitel to play Lansky in his dotage. Keitel brings his own legacy to the role and commands every scene he’s in, emphasizing Lansky’s self-importance as a historical figure while refusing to whitewash his most atrocious actions. The actor plays up Lansky’s old-fashioned wit and belief that his presence alone should be intimidating enough, and you believe the character when he warms to his interlocutor, a down-on-his-heels writer named David Stone (Sam Worthington, made up to look like Tom Selleck, for some reason). The scenes between the two men, which often take place in a diner where Lansky knows all the waitresses on a first-name basis, get to truths about how certain men believe that intimidation is the right of a successful operator and give Lansky the kind of extra dimension that’s difficult pull off in these kinds of biopics.
Unfortunately, the rest of the movie squanders this insight for the sake of cheap cliches. Stone is being blackmailed by the FBI into getting intelligence from Lansky about where he supposedly stashed $300 million. The writer is also trying to reconnect with his daughter after divorcing his wife. And the flashbacks, which recount Lansky’s rise and rise over the years are, despite whatever historical interest they provide, nothing more than opportunities to show how vicious the mob is when carrying out its prerogatives. Rockaway also implies that Lansky’s Jewish heritage was exploited twice, first by the US government, which allowed him to brutally eliminate the German Nazi influence on the docks of the middle Atlantic states in the years leading up to and including WWII, and later when he helped bankroll the new state of Israel, promising them weapons as well. Both subplots are used narratively to explain Lansky’s fortunes in that the governments of both the U.S. and Israel “betrayed” him, a supposition that, in Rockaway’s hands, is simplified to the point of irrelevance. Lansky the historical figure deserves better, and so does Keitel.
Now playing in Tokyo at Shinjuku Wald 9 (03-5369-4955).
Lansky home page in Japanese
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