Friday 4 February 2022

Movie Review: Atlantic City (1980)

An engrossing character study and crime drama, Atlantic City focuses on people, time, and a sense of place, with just the right dose of tense criminal activity.

Atlantic City is undergoing a transformation, with old heritage buildings and hotels being knocked down to make way for new casinos. Old-timer Lou (Burt Lancaster) is a low-key runner in a small numbers racket, and scratches a few more bucks by caring for his neighbour Grace (Kate Reid), a bed-ridden but demanding widow. Also living in the same building is Sally (Susan Sarandon), a server at a hotel fish bar training to become a croupier and dreaming of a career in Monte Carlo. Through his window, Lou admires Sally's nightly cleansing-with-lemons routine.

Sally's no-good husband Dave (Robert Joy) has run off with her sister Chrissie (Hollis McLaren), but now both show up in Atlantic City and want to stay with Sally. The free-spirited and pregnant Chrissie bonds with Grace over foot massages, while Dave recruits Lou's help to sell drugs he stole from thugs in Philadelphia. When Dave's drug-dealing career comes to a sudden end, Lou is left holding plenty of drugs and cash, and finally has an opportunity to impress Sally and experience his version of the big time.

Set in a milieu of questionable renewal, Atlantic City breathes deeply from the dust of demolition and reconstruction. Director Louis Malle ensure the city is an important lead character and a noisy participant in the process of erasing the past and striding into a future defined as better by virtue of investment. 

With the city in a half-state of renewal, no one is satisfied with the present, and Atlantic City is populated with a memorable set characters interacting during personal transitions. In an achingly honest script, writer John Guare laments the past with the romanticized lyricism necessary for the soul's survival. Lou's inclinations to harken back to yesteryear reveal a sometimes pathetic recasting of non-existent past glories, Lou living in a grandeur he built for himself to cover for so much nothingness. 

Meanwhile, Sally hates her past and lives for a future in Europe, her awful present consisting of peddling fish, battling the stink, and surviving the advances of a casino manager who may hold the key to her future. Her no-good but still soft-touch husband Dave is hustling for better days through drug dealing, Chrissie lives simultaneously in the past and future thanks to her reincarnation beliefs, and Grace feeds off exaggerated references to her dead husband's status in the old underworld.

When even the grandest old hotels are being demolished for something new, hope for a change in fortunes is eternal, and Lou is about to experience the best of times. He inherits more money than he ever handled, and awkwardly, but predictably, buys the most expensive outdated suit he can find. He then sets out to transform his voyeurism into courtship by throwing money at Sally's problems. And for a brief interlude, it appears possible that a sad old man without much of a past and a sad young woman with a vague future can find happiness together. 

The entire cast shines, led by Burt Lancaster in a soulful mood, allowing Lou to relax into his advancing years but deftly revealing his small-time foundations. Susan Sarandon conveys Sally's state of constant aggravation in search of a ticket to elsewhere, her eyes quick to realize she needs help from men she will never tolerate. 

Atlantic City will change but persevere, in some form. Lou and Sally will also dream of better days past and future, but have less time and ability to redefine who they truly are.

All Ace Black Movie Blog reviews are here.

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