Dominating every frame, Paul Newman’s charismatic, multishaded performance elevates the hodgepodge caper comedy “Where the Money Is” a couple of notches above its preposterous plotting and self-consciously movieish texture. This star vehicle also offers substantial roles for Linda Fiorentino and Dermot Mulroney, as a young, bored couple rescued from their dull lives by Newman’s legendary bank robber. Best marketing hook for the USA Films spring release is the cast’s high-voltage acting, particularly the pleasure of watching Newman in one of his quietest, subtlest and most resonant roles in years.
The uneven screenplay, credited to E. Max Frye, Topper Lilien and Carroll Cartwright, consciously echoes various roles in Newman’s rich, 50-year career, particularly that of “Fast Eddie” Felson in “The Hustler” and its sequel, “The Color of Money,” with further motifs and subplots borrowed from “Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid” and “The Sting.”
First bigscreen directorial outing by Marek Kanievska in 13 years is clearly divided into three chapters. In the first, the mute and unresponsive Henry Manning (Newman) is delivered by prison guards to a nursing home, where the apparent stroke victim is placed under the care of Carol (Fiorentino), a nurse who’s utterly bored by her job and her marriage to the none-too-ambitious Wayne (Mulroney). Throughout, text effectively conveys the notion of life as a prison, in ways both realistic (for Henry) and figurative (for Carol and Wayne).
Intrigued by Henry’s famous past as a bank robber, Carol suspects that there’s more to the feeble and helpless man in the wheelchair than meets the eye. She tries to excite him — going so far as lap dancing for him — but to no avail. Frustrated, Carol orchestrates an audacious and irresponsible act, dumping Henry into the river, a place that soon becomes a crucial site in the spiraling plot. Not surprisingly, Henry emerges from the water intact and under his own power, and his trick is revealed: He faked a stroke in order to get out of prison.
Second and most exciting reel details the intimate, secretive bond that develops between the con man and the nurse. Bits and pieces of their respective pasts are disclosed, as when Carol relates all the disappointments she’s experienced since she was crowned prom queen, the highlight of her life to date. It’s a tribute to Newman’s still-handsome looks and abundant charm that he effortlessly generates an erotic charge with a woman who is young enough to be his daughter. Hubby Wayne, of course, gets jealous.
It takes some time and work, but finally Henry consents to instruct Carol and the initially reluctant Wayne in the art of bank robbing, dispensing with great panache his accumulated wisdom. Yarn then proceeds none too convincingly with a heist that can only be described as a bargain-basement re-creation of Newman’s earlier screen escapades.
Story’s crucial problem is not that it rehashes ideas from better films, but that it tries to play it both ways, moral and immoral, mythic and realistic. This is particularly true of the effort at a crowd-pleasing ending.
The major entertainment in this slight film is Newman’s performance. Charm has always come easily (perhaps too easily) for Newman, whose range as an actor has never been particularly wide, yet when a role is right for him, as here, he is peerless. Like Burt Lancaster in the last decade of his career, he is a movie star who continues to develop as an actor. Newman stopped fighting or trying to conceal his good looks, instead integrating them into his parts to the point where audiences take them as a given. Indeed, what holds the film together is the warmth supplied by Newman, who at 75 still projects a boyish eagerness and irresistible likability.
It’s clear that working with the veteran star has inspired his co-stars to deliver performances that are better and deeper than the material. Acting with extraordinary agility, Fiorentino renders a more human version of the heartless femme she played in “The Last Seduction,” her previous career high. Several scenes fondly recall the triangle of characters at the center of “The Color of Money,” in which Newman imparted his know-how to the young and inexperienced Tom Cruise and Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio.
Kanievska, who enjoyed a most promising debut with “Another Country” but has not directed a film since 1987’s “Less Than Zero,” brings commendable stylishness to the storytelling, giving it a relaxed tempo, with occasional dramatic punctuation provided by Newman’s sharp verbal and physical gestures.
With Montreal-area locations subbing for the specified Oregon locale, pic gains added playfulness and eccentricity from Thomas Burstyn’s lensing and Andre Chamberland’s production design, particularly in the heist segment, in which each stop is lit with different, unusual colors.