Movie Review: If only they’d remembered Harvey Keitel is “Lansky”

The dying old mobster wants to set the record “straight,” give us “the real story,” one more time in “Lansky,” the latest version of the “mob accountant” who allegedly died with hundreds of millions of dollars that nobody ever found.

It’s a lot like many a mob memoir, especially a 1999 HBO film of the same title. That “Lansky” was scripted by David Mamet, starred Richard Dreyfuss, Eric Roberts, Ileana Douglas and Anthony LaPaglia, and is remembered for the same tired “interview” framing device, its brutality and image-burnishing.

Director John McNaughton (“Wild Things,” “Mad Dog and Glory”) at least gave it a gritty gloss.

This new, more down-market biopic has no Mamet, no McNaughton, and more exaggerated versions of the same flaws as the last “Lansky.”

It’s reasonably well cast, with Harvey Keitel as Meyer Lansky, Bugsy Seigel’s “partner,” the casino mogul with an “accountant’s” mind, telling “the real story” to a (fictional) journalist/biographer (Sam Worthington).

“When they don’t know you,” Lansky intones, “they put labels on you.”

The image Lansky paints of himself, in person as he’s interviewed, and in flashbacks (Joe Magaro isn’t bad, or the least bit charismatic, as younger Meyer) shows him still polishing his image, playing up his WWII “patriotism,” pitching in by hiring goons to beat up Nazi rallies in New York, cooperating with the Navy in using the mob to track down German spies (mob torture included). He was a big postwar backer of Israel, shuttling casino cash to help Golda Meir establish the Jewish state.

He’s still how we remember him, a top Jewish mobster in a mostly Italian mob era, a “survivor,” still careful to never pull the trigger or wield a knife himself. But it’s always implied in these stories that he was rougher and tougher “coming up.” Implied, but never shown.

This Lansky’s partner Ben “Bugsy” Siegel (David Cade) is a murderous monster who is the real tough guy. Lansky only gets physical when he’s fighting with his first wife (Anna Sophia Robb), perhaps the least flattering addition to his screen image.

Writer-director Eytan Rockaway (“The Abandoned”) serves up a cluttered, clumsy and dull portrait that blunders most obviously by not having Keitel do the voice-over narration for the flashbacks. Some are in Magaro’s voice, some in Worthington’s.

There are Feds (David James Elliott et al) racing to find Lansky’s alleged hidden millions, strong-arming the hapless, broke and desperate “biographer” to get him to help them track it down.

Thus is the wizened, tanned mobster, whose conditions for agreeing to the interviews are that they not be published until after his death, engaged in one last set of intrigues, keeping one last big secret even as he’s giving his spin on others he passes on to writer David Stone (Worthington).

People still die when they talk too much about Meyer Lansky, even as he nears death, in this story. But Rockaway never lets anything interesting get on screen that he doesn’t undercut with sadly sentimental slop in the very next moment.

Keitel is relaxed and magnanimous as the elderly mob capo, saddled with exposition, aphorism and rationalization-heavy dialogue, given one flashback of his own (his attempts to escape U.S. justice in Israel) in which to show us the fire the actor is famous for.

The mob movie tropes and cliches end up being the only memorable moments in “Lansky,” material so overfamiliar we can finish the lines before the actors do.

“I’m an angel…with a dirty face.” “You do what you can to feel alive.” “I’m a businessman. We don’t choose sides. We choose opportunities.”

The trouble with every screen treatment of Lansky (the saintly Ben Kinglsey played him in “Bugsy”) is this idiotic deference writers, directors and actors treat him with. Like everybody else, Rockway separates and insulates the man from the world he was immersed in, as if he’s “above” all that extortion, stealing, murder and mayhem.

If Rockaway had been as loose and cynical with Meyer Lansky as he was with Siegel or the Italians in his movie, it might have had some edge. Then again, when you underscore a meeting between Lansky and Lucky Luciano (Shane McRae) with the cornball Neopolitan musical cliche “Funiculì, Funiculà,” maybe “edgy” is beyond you.


MPA Rating: R for strong bloody violence, language and some sexual references.

Cast: Harvey Keitel, Sam Worthington, Joe Magaro, Anna Sophia Robb, Minka Kelly, David Cade and David James Elliott.

Credits: Scripted and directed by Eytan Rockaway. A Vertical release.

Running time: 1:58

About Roger Moore

Movie Critic, formerly with McClatchy-Tribune News Service, Orlando Sentinel, published in Spin Magazine, The World and now published here, Orlando Magazine, Autoweek Magazine
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