LANSKY gets 4/10 Forget about that

Directed by Eytan Rockaway

Starring Harvey Keitel, Sam Worthington, AnnaSophia Robb, Minka Kelly, David James Elliott, John Magaro


There is a scene in Lansky wherein Luciano meets our titular character at his new resort in Cuba. We know we’re in Cuba because a titlecard advises us. We never see Cuba from outside the lobby of Lansky’s resort. We never feel the heat, we see no locals. What must have been a bustling, sweaty metropolis, overflowing with flavours and decadence, is completely hidden from us. Lansky asks Luciano how his flight was. His response? “Forget about that!”

Iconic mob speak….is not featured this film. Most of the wiseguys in Lansky would be more at home playing members of the Winklevoss’ rowing team from The Social Network. Whilst not the most fitting comparison, Lansky shows from the outset that it is not fit to be compared with other titles featuring similar subject matter, such as Casino, Gotti (the Armand Assante one, not the Travolta one), Bugsy and, in particular, Boardwalk Empire.

Boardwalk Empire featured (as a peripheral supporting character) Meyer Lansky, the Russian-born Jew whose knack for counting the numbers and fixing the books bought him favour with childhood friends and eventual business partners Charles “Lucky” Luciano and Ben “Bugsy” Siegel. Luciano would vouch for Lansky to get a seat on “The Council”; the Organised Crime Board of Executives, membership for which typically included an Italian surname.

A Jew sitting at the very top of this All-Italian club, a position earned on guile and merit, is a fascinating and compelling narrative. Lanksy avoids showing us how this happened, instead focusing on the punctuating moments in flashback, barely clad in context. The film assumes you already knew this stuff anyway. In a history-defining powerplay, the three wise guys take out Salvatore “Little Caesar” Maranzano. Maranzano was the last of the independent Dons, and his demise would usher in the existence of “The Council”, which oversaw “The Syndicate”, leading us into the rise of organised crime through the last century. Lansky does not bother with effectively contextualising this moment on which the lives and livelihoods of the likes of Lanksy, Luciano, and Capone hinged upon.

In fact, the story of Meyer Lansky is a supporting act to the film’s main thread. This movie is really about David (Sam Worthington). David is a down-on-his-luck journo/author who has been handpicked by Lanksy (Harvey Keitel) to document the aging, and now cancer-ridden Boss Of Bosses’ account of his rise to the top. These discussions happen at a diner, then David goes home to his cheap rented motel room to thrash out the details on his typewriter. David’s estranged wife is unimpressed by the size of the fish David has landed (the film implies that David has “cried wolf” once or twice before) so he sets out to win back the respect and love of his wife and daughter through the Lanksy job, thus setting the film’s stakes. Sounds reasonable, right?

Not long after this conversation, David spots a bikini-clad woman named Maureen doing laps in the motel pool. David brings her out some beers. She keenly accepts and they end up sleeping together. Later, he breaks up a fight with her ex. He sheepishly owns up to Lansky, who notices some lipstick on David’s collar (nothing gets past Lanksy). “Women!”, declares Lansky: “Can’t live with ’em, can’t shoot ’em!” Yeah, forget about that.

David’s existence is inevitably jeopardised when he is double-crossed by someone he trusted (guess who). The feds have gotten involved and are now leaning on David to glean specific financial information from Lanksy, who himself is now being double-crossed by someone he trusted. Will David remain loyal to his new friend? Or will he betray the last man in America you would ever want to betray?

What stakes are established don’t end up factoring in any satisfying way. The film is flattened under the weight of a wooden, threadbare showing from Worthington. There are real stakes at play here, and real danger, and real emotion and real hurt and real loss and Worthington does not convey what’s on the line in a compelling manner. His lifeless performance knocks the wind out of any stakes the movie tells us matter, often to the point of distraction.

Keitel, on the other hand, chews up the screen with an understated, graceful portrayal of a man who feared no one now facing his mortality. It’s a shame that he doesn’t have much more than fifteen minutes of screen time. Devoid of apt context, the flashbacks to young Lanksy (John Magaro) lack punch and weight, and he is inexplicably portrayed as more Tony Soprano than Sam Rothstein.

The film itself is light on for specifics in story and in cinematography. Director Eytan Rockaway whisks us from New York in the 1920s to Cuba in the 1950s, to Israel in the 1980s and to heartland America in the 1980s and at no point does the viewer ever feel like they are actually there, immersed in the sights and sounds that our characters obviously are. It is a film about one of the richest, elusive gangsters ever and it takes place mostly in a diner and in a motel room.

Anotol Yusef’s Meyer Lanksy as portrayed in Boardwalk is a more nuanced, far superior character study. Those interested in the rise of Lansky would be well advised to watch Boardwalk Empire. You will also find the mob depicted more viscerally in Analyse This. One might hope this film would be a sobering, instructive companion to the aforementioned flicks. A thoughtful portrayal of the fleeting highs and desperate lows of mob life, and the scarred humanity that lied therein. Forget about that.


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