Atlantic City June 26, 2020
1 Hr., 43 Mins.
annabes and never-weres populate Louis Malle’s Atlantic City
(1980). Yet despite the overwhelming presences of failure and missed opportunity — like no matter how hard you try, you cannot effectively, cleanly, run away from your past — it still feels, to me, like an optimistic movie. It suggests that for some people, it never truly is too late for things to change for the better. The narrative builds
around an ensemble of dreamers milling around in the title city, where gambling has been legal only since 1976. (Once this became lawful, demolition of the old and construction of the new — the new being Las Vegas-style casino-resorts — started proliferating; sometimes, the film seems to be a melancholy paean to the rose-colored “old days” and how easily they can be destroyed.)
Atlantic City finds its center in the 70-ish Lou Pascal (Burt Lancaster), who says he was a big-time gangster way back when. He lives in a no-frills apartment building where he now works as the caretaker of (and apparently sometimes paid lover of) Grace (Kate Reid), a bed-ridden senior who purportedly first came to Atlantic City to work as a Betty Grable impersonator. (Lou also helms a numbers game for which he targets the city’s most desperate.) There isn’t much purpose in his life. Lou is so chained to the demanding Grace, perpetually smushed by her silky, fluffy bedding and forever accompanied by her prissy white toy poodle. She even has a bell to which he must respond when rung. We don’t understand altogether why Lou is so loyal to Grace, especially if he really is the once-powerful mob man he describes himself as and if he is as financially sound as he intimates.
Lou seems recently to have found something new to live for through Sally (Susan Sarandon), a younger neighbor. Nightly he sees her partaking in a ritual where she leans over her kitchen sink by the window and rubs her body with fresh lemon juice. This routine alone makes him want to get to know her. We later find out that this is not a women’s-magazine beauty secret being realized but rather an attempt on Grace’s part to de-smell herself. She works a low-paying job at a nearby oyster bar, where, to make matters worse, she often accidentally nicks her hands. But why not let Lou fantasize for a moment.
Curveballs are thrown at these characters pretty quickly in Atlantic City. Sally is here in the first place, working such a thankless job, because she dreams of becoming a blackjack dealer. (She’s very serious about the goal; along with nine other people, whom we meet later on in the film, she is a croupier-in-training going through a makeshift educational program.) She ran away a while ago from her two-bit criminal husband, Dave (Robert Joy), in the process. But as the action is getting started in Atlantic City, Dave is not only coming to the area to reunite with Sally. He also has with him her dizzy sister, Chrissie (Hollis McLaren), whom he has subsequently gotten together with and impregnated, and an enormous bag of stolen cocaine which he hopes to sell. He fortuitously enlists the eager Lou to assist him in the vending. This also allows Lou and Sally, who wants nothing to do with Dave, to get better acquainted eventually.
Not much good on the surface can come of this, especially since, in the middle of the film, the people from whom Dave snagged the cocaine track him down and kill him. If there is any resulting good, it’s more than anything the way this dilemma connects Lou and Sally, and how it evinces their vulnerabilities and motivations — and the charming naïvete undergirding who they want to be. There is a mutual attraction here. But it’s established subliminally by screenwriter John Guare that what we’re witnessing is not a burgeoning romance between people who are meant to be together but rather people who need each other, temporarily, to get to their next destination.
It’s touching to watch the starry-eyed Sally so earnestly work toward her career of choice. It’s also moving, albeit a little more sadly, how much of a kick Lou seems to be getting out of again being in the criminal milieu. The way he reacts to the change of pace, though, seems not in stride with how a seasoned criminal like he purports to be would act. Instead he comes across to us as a man who always has sort of been part of a thing now suddenly more tangibly part of that thing. When he kills a couple of drug dealers toward the end of Atlantic City, he’s giddy about it like a child. There’s no way he’s shot someone before this. If he has, it’s sort of funny how much his reverence for gangsters, as if they were cool anti-heroic movie stars, has remained in his old age. He tells anyone and everyone who will listen what he’s done, a big, goofy grin taking up his face. He reminds us of a toddler pleased to announce to his grandparents that the other day, he caught his first fish and it wasn’t hard at all.
Sally is working toward a new future; it’s what keeps her going, and that that future is within reach is thrilling. We suspect she hasn’t been this exhilarated by something before. For Lou, it’s conversely his unexpected moving back into a past he wishes he had had for himself that tickles him. Lou and Sally are out of sync in terms of where they’re going. But they’ve found each other at the right time in that they’re transitioning concurrently; their transitions have key shared problems that couldn’t be smoothed out without the help of the other.
Lancaster and Sarandon imbue these pretty quixotic characters with an engaging sweetness. It doesn’t matter much that neither person has much thought to be introspective, analyze their circumstances ahead of time to figure out where they could potentially go wrong. (Things do go especially wrong for Sally later in the movie — a development some viewers might have seen coming.) But everything manages to come out decently OK in Atlantic City.
Malle’s dreamy direction, with Guare’s deft writing (it has a convincing sense of melancholy while still feeling light and airy), makes it a likable movie that would prefer to not always be bracing for the worst. Malle and co. make myopia sure seem blissful. A-