An accountant’s life, by any stretch of the imagination, is wrought with the mundane. No matter how many colorful figures enter the world of a numbers man, a numbers man he will remain. David Mamet, whose signature works like a straitjacket on the subject at hand, signals this to some degree by making empty the core of his Meyer Lansky. As Mamet attempts to give Lansky an emotional center, specifically being a Jew without a country on a personal crusade, he creates a victim, “a gambler” who grew up the best friend of Charles Luciano and Ben Siegel. He constructs, with the logic of an oft-used Rubik’s Cube, a confusing account of a man who assimilated his way into power in Italian-American Mob life, a rather benign story about a man who built an empire on craps and slot machines.
Richard Dreyfuss’ lower than low-key portrayal is in constant service to the arid texture of the script, for this “Lansky” is very much Mamet’s portrait. Mamet (who took a sideways look at “Hoffa” in 1992) paints “Lansky” with language rather than the tried-and-true gunfire of Mob pics. In its place is the brand of ambiguity that made a work such as “The Spanish Prisoner” so engaging, but here it backfires. There’s confusion in motivation, substance and history; dates or locales, for example, are not given throughout the non-linear telepic until the film closes in Miami Beach in 1978, a little more than four years before Lansky’s death at the age of 80 on Jan. 15, 1983.
Contempo story starts with Lansky (Dreyfuss) in Israel keeping clean the graves of his grandparents, killing time until the Israeli high court decides whether he can remain in the country. Once they say no, he starts flying to South America with second wife Teddy (Beverly D’Angelo) and his lawyers, seeking asylum in Paraguay and then Panama, where he is arrested by the FBI and shipped to Miami to stand trial. (Closing footnote mentions Lansky was never convicted of a crime).
Back story, which starts in the graveyard, begins with young Lanksy (Joshua Praw) witnessing the murder of a Jew (in Poland one guesses) and the start of his gambling fixation. Teenage Benny Siegel (Anthony Medwetz) befriends Lansky (Ryan Merriman) and begins tutoring him about the streets, specifically how to control the gambling and how to never fight fair.
As young men, Lansky (Max Perlich as a stern yet confident student of the big fix), Siegel (Matthew Settle) and Charlie Luciano (Paul Sincoff) get their start in the bootlegging business of Arnold Rothstein (Stanley DeSantis), the man who fixed the 1919 World Series and was intrigued by Lansky’s mental capabilities. “Never write it down,” Rothstein tells his young charge. “Keep it in your head.”
Lansky adopts the motto, and upon Rothstein’s murder, leaps at the chance to move up in organized crime with his two childhood pals. Naturally, Lansky is never the one with the gun, the vendetta or the hit ordered — he’s keeping the books straight and, in the most poorly developed subplot, ignoring his wife Anna (Illeana Douglas) and his two sons.
Transitions — they’re not deliberate enough to be flashbacks — from Lansky’s legal plight to his past are often handled in a cliched and awkward manner. The worst occurs when the young Lansky lowers his head to wash his face and pops up middle-aged. With each, the viewer is caught off-guard, wondering where we are and why we’re here.Scenes of Lansky’s activities in the ’40s and ’50s are too short to pinpoint his role in the Mafia. He appears to be at a casino in Cuba, but why? A government hearing attempts to connect him to organized crime with no explanation of why he’s the heavy. And Anna? Who knows where she ended up.
Lansky’s strongest years came during World War II: He ascended within the Mafia alongside Luciano and Siegel; he defends their every move to the power brokers and then seemingly smoothes ruffled feathers better than any made man alive. He brims with confidence and even starts to carry a swagger — it’s Lansky in his prime: an era that, if captured alone, would have made a more focused biopic.
The elderly Lansky, a worn-out man who maintains that he’s a gambler and nothing more, loves jokes about Jews with no place to call home, about young people unaware of the post-WWII creation of the state of Israel. Dreyfuss plays Lansky so somberly that the epilogue, a sit-down with a journalist in Miami, feels out of place. Suddenly, after all he’s been through, he’s animated and forthcoming, talking with his hands and tossing around Italian lingo instead of Yiddish. Is Mamet suggesting Lansky so lost his soul that he eventually could imitate only the men he knew best?
As they age, Luciano and Siegel lock onto female companionship as a motivating factor in their lives; more than anything, Eric Roberts, as the 40-year-old Siegel, and Anthony LaPaglia, as Luciano in his 30s, represent the out-in-front lifestyle Lansky shied away from, a flamboyance that has appealed to filmmakers for decades. The two bring some enthusiasm to the setting, showing that at least some of these gangsters enjoyed their spoils.
Director John McNaughton keeps the action remarkably still. When he does go for the gunshots, which is rare, his targets are indeed the exasperated or overweight Italian goombahs whohave populated every Mob pic ever shot. The supporting actors play their parts with detached coolness; McNaughton’s tone is as calculated as Mamet’s text.
Mamet glosses over anything that could set up a fact-or-fiction debate and, as the credits state, “Lansky” is based on part of a biography.
In the end, Mamet makes Lansky too diffuse, too difficult for viewers to get their arms around. For all its challenges of what a Mafia movie has the potential to be, “Lansky” makes it hard to see even what attracted the playwright to the subject in the first place.