Harvey Keitel has still got it. The 82-year-old actor reigns over the biopic Lansky despite not being in most of it. That’s partly because the movie itself is pretty dreary weak tea — though handsomely realized on what I imagine was not a large budget — but mostly because Keitel will naturally dominate everything you put him in now, with ease and little effort. In The Irishman, Keitel had scant minutes of screen time and maybe eight words of dialogue that I can remember, but in a room with Robert De Niro and Joe Pesci, he was the unquestioned force. As a young man, Keitel bellowed and flailed (and his torments meant a lot to us), but now all he has to do is angle his head and pitch his voice just a bit differently and he still packs a punch. Please, someone put Keitel in one last film that deserves him.

Keitel does infinitely more for Lansky than it does for him. It’s 1981, and “mob accountant” Meyer Lansky (Keitel) has recently been diagnosed with the cancer that will kill him two years later. Lansky decides it’s time to tell his story, and selects struggling, just-divorced writer David Stone (Sam Worthington) to work on the book. The Lansky we see most of the time onscreen is in his thirties and forties, and is played (well enough) by John Magaro. As the older Lansky relates his younger days in flashbacks, we hear about something that’s low-key fascinated me for years: the war between the mob and the Nazis. Look up Operation Underworld sometime and marvel at how it hasn’t yet inspired the greatest movie ever made. It takes up all of three minutes here, and I would gladly have had a whole film, with this cast and these filmmakers, treating that subject at length.

Instead we get an obnoxiously pointless subplot, dealing with the writer who, as far as I can determine, is made up out of whole cloth, and who dallies with a woman who gets him involved with the feds, and I guarantee you, every time this subplot shows its saggy, unshaven face, you will want to huck a tomato at it. It’s a whole other (and intolerably boring) movie transplanted onto a promising movie. Nothing against Sam Worthington — or Minka Kelly, who plays the woman — but this entire narrative could be lifted out and leave us with a leaner, meaner film, perhaps adding back some stuff they had to cut out to keep the film under two hours. What they have now doesn’t work on its own or in here. It’s truly awful. It turns a potentially solid film into a bad one. Take it out and put back more stuff about gangsters gouging out Nazis’ eyes at a Bund meeting.

Thematically, the writer’s subplot does make sense: it echoes Lansky’s own conviction that he did what he had to do for his family. The message, banal but not belabored, is that family is all, but if you make the wrong moves to protect it you wind up destroying it, as Michael Corleone found out. The younger Lansky has many tedious squabbles with his wife (AnnaSophia Robb) over the amount of blood on their money, as if she didn’t go into her marriage with him (as the movie tells it) knowing what he was. The director, Eytan Rockaway, keeps things moving and lively — there’s always something going on — but he should have fired the screenwriter, who unfortunately is also Eytan Rockaway.

Keitel delivers on his end of the bargain. He gets to play a lot of juicy elderly-sinner emotions, though age has subdued Lansky somewhat. It doesn’t matter. When it comes time for Lansky to show a flash of fury or cave to despair, Keitel nails it, but with the economy that wisdom brings. I don’t think he could play a frenzied dumbass anymore, like the pianist in Fingers or the elaborately suffering Bad Lieutenant. He has become, as I said, the grey eminence who quietly dominates. He was even memorable in The Painted Bird dubbed in Interslavic. I hope that he has many more performances in store, and that at least one of them is in a movie that earns him.

Explore posts in the same categories: biopic, drama

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