Where the Money Is: Caper Comedy, Starring Paul Newman

Dominating every single frame, Paul Newman’s charismatic, multi-shaded performance elevates the new Ridley and Tony Scott production, Where the Money Is, a hodgepodge caper comedy, at least two 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 who’re rescued from their dull lives by Newman’s legendary bank robber. Best marketing hook for USA spring release is the entire cast’s high-voltage acting, particularly the pleasure of watching Newman in one of his quietest, subtlest and most resonant roles in years.

Where the Money Is owes its entire existence to Newman’s screen magic–and half-a-century film oeuvre. The uneven screenplay, credited to E. Max Frye, Topper Lilien and Carroll Cartwright, consciously echoes various roles in Newman’s rich career, particularly that of “Fast Eddie” Felson in The Hustler and its sequel, The Color of Money, for which Newman won an Oscar, with further motifs and subplots borrowed from Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid and The Sting.

Though not based on a play, narrative is clearly divided into three chapters. In the first, Henry Manning (Newman) is delivered by prison guards to a nursing home, where he is placed under the care of Carol (Fiorentino), a nurse who’s utterly bored by her job and marriage to the none-too-ambitious Wayne (Mulroney), who works mostly night shifts. Throughout text conveys effectively the notion of life as a prison in both a realistic (for Henry, who’s bound to return to jail) and figurative (for Carol and Wayne) ways.

Intrigued by Henry’s famous past as a bank robber, Carol suspects that there’s more to the feeble and helpless wheel-chaired man than it seemingly appears. She tries to excite him with alluring talk and suggestive gestures–including lap dancing–but to no avail. Frustrated, Carol orchestrates an audacious and irresponsible act, dumping Henry into the river, a place that soon becomes a crucial sight in the spiraling plot. Not surprisingly, Henry emerges out of the water intact and his trick is immediately revealed: he had faked a stroke in order to get out of prison.

Second, and most exciting, reel, details the intimate, secretive bond that develops between Henry’s con man and Carol’s easily excitable nurse. Bits and pieces of their respective pasts are disclosed, as when Carol relates all the disappointments she has had since being crowned prom queen, the highlight of her life to date. Late at night, they go out to a local bar, casually engaging in chatting, drinking, and dancing. It’s a tribute to Newman’s handsome looks and abundant charm that he effortlessly generates erotic charge with a woman who age-wise could be his daughter, which of course makes hubby Wayne jealous.

It takes some time and work, but finally Henry consents to instruct Carol and the initially reluctant Wayne in bank robbing, dispensing with great panache his accumulated wisdom. Yarn then proceeds none too convincingly with a chronicle of a heist that could only be described as bargain-basement recreation of Newman’s former screen escapades in Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid and The Sting, to mention a few of his screen incarnations as a con man.

The problem with the narrative is not that it’s movieish and rehashes ideas of better tales, but that it tries to play it both ways, be at once moral and immoral, mythic and realistic. This is particularly the case of the crowd-pleasing ending, in which, following an escape from the police, Carol asks a priest to remove her wedding ring and presents Henry, back on a wheel-chair, as her daddy.

Under these circumstances, major fun to be had in what’s ultimately a very slight if entertaining film, is observing Newman’s sculpted performance. Charm has always come easily (perhaps too easily) for Newman, whose range as an actor was never particularly wide, yet when a role is right for him, as is the case here, he is peerless. Like Burt Lancaster in the last decade of his career, Newman is a movie star who continues to develop as an actor. Also like Lancaster (and Robert Redford), Newman stopped fighting or trying to conceal his good looks, instead integrating them into his parts to the point where audiences take them as given.

What holds the film together is the warmth supplied by Newman, who at 75 still projects an admirably boyish eagerness and irresistibly infectious likableness. Newman has obviously sparked his co-stars, Fiorentino and Mulroney, to give better and deeper performances than the material suggests. One almost senses the younger thesps’s motivation to pump up the volume just to keep up with their leading man. Acting with extraordinary speed and agility, Fiorentino renders a more human version of the heartless femme she played in The Last Seduction, her previous high. Several interactional scenes fondly recall those of the triangle of characters at the center of Color of Money, in which Newman imparts his acumen to the equally young and inexperienced Tom Cruise and Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio.

Marek 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/or physical gestures.

Shot around the Montreal area, 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 by using different, unusual colors, such as orange, green, and turquoise.