Right off the bat, Lansky encounters pitfalls that all movies by now should know better than to fall into. It’s technical stuff at first—thoughtless editing that overrides the audience’s attention, wordy and pedestrian exposition. Sam Worthington plays fictional journalist David Stone, who Harvey Keitel’s Meyer Lansky hires to write a piece on his entire career as some kind of end-of-life confessional, having recently been diagnosed with terminal lung cancer. Stone has marital troubles as evidenced by a series of tense phone calls to home, where he and his wife conveniently discuss said problems as if there were an unknown party watching in need of context to understand what they’re eavesdropping on. I don’t know, say, like some people watching them on a movie screen or something.
Stone and Lansky have daily meetings, most of the time at a local diner. These diner scenes are the movie’s first chance to breathe, and the opportunity to watch Keitel act circles around Worthington, who functions as a soundboard, proves to be just about the only thing worthwhile about it. Keitel makes acting look effortless. It’s almost thrilling to watch him live in a character, to give him his own thoughts, to construct a performance inside a performance. And while I’m a fan of John Magaro, who plays the younger Lansky, his acting doesn’t compare, and it also seems like he and Keitel are playing different characters. Not only does the flashback structure cut into Keitel’s screen time, but it feels like a disservice to whatever Magaro was trying to do, and inevitably so. So ultimately, the movie’s two major plots fall flat, leaving only the untapped potential for a sort of low-key, talky, philosophical movie between a gangster and a writer all set in one location. Call it My Dinner With Lansky. Honestly, that would have been way better.
Instead, the flashback sequences take up the bulk of the movie. They’re sparsely furnished with cheap period detail. Very little was constructed for these scenes to evoke the time period. At one point the movie transitioned from the 1930s to the 1980s and it took me a second to register the change. Peppered in liberally with the story of Meyer’s younger days are elements from a Gangster Movie Starter Pack. There’s a murder montage, a psycho henchman (Bugsy Seigel, played with enthusiasm by newcomer David Cade), a nagging wife (AnnaSophia Robb, who deserves better) and some neglected kids, and a couple of monologue-laden execution scenes, one of which takes place in the woods. I kept expecting Lansky to ask someone, “How am I funny?”
Then in present-day (er, the 1980s), we divert from the gangster story to watch journalist Stone languish in a motel and toy with the idea of cheating on his wife with a pretty lady by the pool, à la National Lampoon’s Vacation. While this affair will be used for some ultimately pointless third act suspense, it nevertheless seems endorsed, not really meaningfully used to compare the duplicitous acts between legendary criminals and everyday people, which it should have been. Therein lies one of the deeper problems of Lansky. It roughly indicates areas of moral ambiguity, but really rejects them in the end.
Just as in the scene where Stone questions Lansky about the morality of his work and Lansky dismisses him, the movie raises the question of criminality as empowerment for minority groups and then shoots it right back down. It almost guiltily brings up the issue of Jewish gangsterism for no other reason than to justify it. One scene where Lansky organizes a mass beating of some American Nazi Party members plays out as explicitly patriotic. I’m all for punching Nazis, but what about when it’s in the service of vaguely implying that America is always right? Now you have me second-guessing what should be a very clear-cut answer.
During this sequence, Stone asks how Lansky could work with the government to crush antisemitism when the same government wants to put him in jail. Lansky claims to see the grey as opposed to the black and white. But does he, really? You’d have to believe that criminals and the American government don’t work well together in order to buy that. Whereas older gangster films like The Godfather used organized crime to critique capitalist systems, Lansky comes off as propaganda for capitalism. In fact, the criminal enterprises that helped fund Lansky’s creation of the gambling industry in Las Vegas are indirectly praised in a bit of on-screen text at the end of the film that informs us that said industry contributes $250 million annually to the economy and employs over 200 million people. And of course, the movie doesn’t forget to use Lansky’s dealings with the Israeli government to edge in an earnest pro-Israel scene, complete with a chin-quivering Magaro and sweet, uplifting music.
I wouldn’t have expected a shallow gangster biopic to secretly be a vehicle for the interests of the American government and its increasingly unseemly commitment to the status quo of economics and foreign affairs, but then again maybe I should have. | Nic Champion