Thursday, June 24, 2021

A gangster story that lights few sparks


   The movie is named Lansky and had it been a superior biopic about the Jewish gangster known as the "mob's accountant," it might have been something special.
   It's not. More on why later.
   Lansky led a rich and varied crime life. He befriended Benjamin "Bugsy" Siegel, helped found Murder Incorporated, formed various alliances with the Italian mob, and was a pal of Charles "Lucky" Luciano. 
   Lansky's gambling activities extended to pre-Castro Cuba. 
   Lansky wasn't exactly what you'd call a Jewish role model, but he used his gang to break up pro-Nazi German American Bund rallies. He also made a deal with the US government to allow some of his crew to help identify Germans who had infiltrated the New York waterfront.
    In short, an interesting guy and a major name in the annals of American crime. Hyman Roth, the gangster played by Lee Strasberg in The Godfather Part II supposedly was modeled on Lansky.
    Aside from the Hyman Roth part, much of what I've  described can be seen in Lansky, which was written and directed by Eytan Rockaway and stars Harvey Keitel as the aging Lansky, a retiree living in Miami after having been denied  Israeli citizenship.
   According the movie, the FBI believed that the aging Lansky hid $300 million from government scrutiny. They wanted to get their hands on it.
   Enough plot for a movie?
   Yes, but Rockaway employs a shopworn technique to tell his  story. Anxious to secure his legacy, Lansky wants someone to write a book about his life -- as seen by him, of course. 
   Enter a reporter (Sam Worthington) selected by Lansky to write what promises to be a best-selling book with an insider’s slant.
   Lansky's life mingles with the intrigues of a reporter whose marriage is on the rocks. Worthington's David Stone desperately needs money. While working on the book, he as an affair with a beautiful woman (Minka Kelly) he meets at the Miami motel where he's staying.
   David James Elliott portrays FBI agent Frank Rivers, the guy who wants to recover the supposedly hidden funds.
   Rockaway isn't always elegant in the way he mixes the movies' storylines:  Lansky and the reporter meet at a Miami diner, which gives Keitel an opportunity to play a sagacious mobster who knows everything about anyone with whom he does business.
   As Lansky talks, he opens the gate for lengthy flashbacks that highlight the major events in Lansky's life.
    John Magaro portrays Lansky in the flashback scenes which also introduced us to Siegel (David Cade) and Luciano (Shane McRae). 
    I'm no expert on Lansky, but the biographical parts of the story feel  well-researched and there's no faulting the cast. 
     Still, the movie bogs down with its a structure that alternates interviews with flashbacks. And the story about a writer's plight provides little by way of additional freshness or interest.
     Worse yet, Lansky lacks urgency and thematic reach. The Godfather movies might have been a loosely conceived take on the historical realities of mob life, but they had something that Lansky never achieves: characters we care deeply about and larger meanings that pushed beyond the confines of genre.

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