“People see the same thing from different perspectives. And that fascinates me,” Harvey Keitel notes in an early scene while playing the title role in “Lansky,” writer-director Eytan Rockaway’s ambitious but uneven biopic about the notorious mobster Meyer Lansky.
It’s tempting to read this snippet of dialogue as Rockaway’s way of acknowledging, right from the start, that his indie drama is yet another interpretation of real-life events previously recounted, with varying degrees of accuracy, in features and TV movies as diverse as “Virginia Hill,” a half-forgotten 1974 TV-movie that marked Joel Schumacher’s debut as writer-director; the 1999 HBO production “Lansky,” starring Richard Dreyfuss and directed by John McNaughton from a script by David Mamet; and Barry Levinson’s “Bugsy” (1991), featuring Ben Kingsley well cast as Meyer Lansky opposite Warren Beatty’s Bugsy Siegel. Truth to tell, however, comparisons to those predecessors don’t always work in Rockaway’s favor.
But never mind: Keitel (who, not incidentally, played Bugsy Siegel to Dyan Cannon’s title character in “Virginia Hill,” and appeared as gangster Mickey Cohen in “Bugsy”) infuses his performance here with more than enough lion-in-winter gravitas to dominate every moment he is on screen, and quite a few when he isn’t, which in turn is sufficient to propel “Lansky” through stretches when the passing of time is felt, and the budgetary limitations are obvious. The veteran actor commands attention not by resorting to showboating histrionics — indeed, he rarely raises his voice — but rather by conveying the sometimes ingratiating, sometimes intimidating self-assurance of someone who has seen it all and didn’t care much for it, and who knows where all the bodies are buried because he personally paid for many of the burials.
The 1999 “Lansky” concluded with Dreyfuss’ Lansky talking to an eagerly inquisitive reporter in a diner while enjoying his golden years in 1981 Miami. Rockaway’s film kinda-sorta picks up where the HBO version left off, with Keitel’s aged Lansky, in the wake of receiving a medical death sentence, summoning journalist David Stone (Sam Worthington, persuasively conflicted) to his favorite Florida eatery. Lansky makes Stone an offer he can’t refuse: Lansky will tell his life story — unapologetically, and maybe ever truthfully — in a series of interviews that Stone can use as material for what is certain to be a best-selling biography. The only catch: Stone can’t publish the book until Lansky dies. That hardly qualifies as a dealbreaker, given Lansky’s condition, so he readily agrees.
“Lansky” proceeds apace on parallel narrative tracks, alternating between flashbacks illustrating Lansky’s rise from impoverished young Russian Jewish immigrant to ruthlessly resourceful underworld royalty, and 1981 scenes with the retired mobster and his attentive Boswell. The movie stops far short of glamorizing its central character, even though it does suggest the 1981 Lansky has a playfully avuncular side. Some of the dialogue is too on-the-nose by half — “The only winners in gambling, as in life, are those who control the game!” — so it helps that Keitel delivers such words of wisdom with a twinkle in his eye. It helps even more that, late in the film, that twinkle provides a grace note of ambiguity as Lansky deflects Stone’s queries about a former confederate’s untimely (and extremely convenient) demise.
Stone, estranged from his wife and dearly missing his children, is so desperately focused on the possibility of a big payday that his judgment is, to put it mildly, clouded. While staying at the sort of seedy motel frequented by budget-conscious critics covering film festivals, the journalist repeatedly notices an alluring beauty (Minka Kelly) in the pool — but doesn’t suspect her of having ulterior motives until about a half-hour after the audience catches on. Later, he thinks he can hide from Lansky his reluctant agreement to leak info to an FBI agent (David James Elliot) obsessed with locating the $300 million Lansky purportedly has stashed away. That this isn’t a fatal error speaks volumes about Lansky’s late-in-life willingness to forgive and forget.
Throughout the flashbacks, Rockaway strives to achieve some sporadic semblance of the dramatic heft and epic sweep of “The Godfather” as Lansky gains wealth and power by running gambling casinos throughout the United States and Cuba, organizing organized crime, ramrodding Murder Inc., and hanging out with such other infamous gangland figures as Bugsy Siegel (David Cade) and Lucky Luciano (Shane McRae).
Being a criminal empire-builder places serious strains on his marriage to his first wife (AnnaSophia Robb) — his second wife, fleetingly referenced in dialogue, is conspicuously absent from the picture — and keeps him from spending as much quality time with his kids as he’d like. On the other hand, his being a proud Jew drives him to make time for such activities as leading violent attacks on American Bund creeps and helping the U.S. government root out Nazi saboteurs before and during World War II, and later throwing his financial support to the founding of Israel. (Yes, believe it or not, those things actually happened — though Lansky’s motives, as this movie acknowledges, were not entirely selfless.)
Unfortunately, John Magaro (late of “First Cow”) is too blandly underwhelming as the young Meyer Lansky for the character to inspire much sympathy or instill much fear. Sure, the real-life Lansky reportedly made his mark by being more cold-bloodedly pragmatic than ferociously bloodthirsty. But Magaro made me think of what Tom Hanks once said while explaining his casting of the normally unprepossessing Bruno Kirby as a surprisingly lethal hotel detective in an episode of the noirish “Fallen Angels” cable series: “I wanted someone who looked like he was a shoe salesman — but who could break your thumbs if he had to.” Alas, Magaro looks like he would simply sell you some loafers.