For a film with quite a bit of grounded violence, Atlantic City is pretty genial. Director Malle shoots in close medium shots; there’s not a lot of grandeur to his shots. Atlantic City has grandeur, as a setting, but Malle doesn’t go out of his way to stylize it. Cinematographer Richard Ciupka shoots the whole thing with a fuzzy brightness.
That geniality is sort of strange, given the film opens with lead Burt Lancaster peeping on next door neighbor Susan Sarandon. He’s an old flunky, taking caring of a boss’s widow (a fantastic Kate Reid); Sarandon is the sort of young dreamer who’s trying to make it in the casinos. She wants to be a dealer, but her creepy older man mentor Michel Piccoli might have other plans for her.
The film takes place in a couple days; it’s what happens when Sarandon’s husband (an underwhelming Robert Joy) shows up with his pregnant mistress, who happens to be Sarandon’s sister (Hollis McLaren in a nothing role). Lancaster ends up helping Joy out, which gives him a taste of the leading man gangster lifestyle he never had in his own youth.
Lancaster’s wonderful in the role, but Malle and writer John Guare never want to hold him accountable for anything. The viewer isn’t supposed to judge the character, though Joy (and Piccoli) get run through the ringer. It’s very uneven and the film would probably work better as Lancaster’s wish fulfillment. Instead, Sarandon occasionally gets promoted to protagonist and it’s problematic because she’s kind of a sap. The character, not Sarandon. Sarandon comes off as way too smart for the character. It’s worse when the character gets a smart line, because it just feels like Sarandon got fed up playing such a shallow character and ad libbed logically.
Look fast for Wallace Shawn.
Atlantic City has a lot of thoughtful, solid scenes, but it doesn’t come together in the end. Malle’s mixing too many things and trying to force Guare’s script into places it doesn’t go. The film asks the viewer to pity Lancaster because he’s old, which is frequently uncomfortable.
It starts slow, gets going, has big problems in the third act but gets a last minute reprieve with the finish. It ought to be a whole lot better though.
Directed by Louis Malle; written by John Guare; director of photography, Richard Ciupka; edited by Suzanne Baron; music by Michel Legrand; production designer, Anne Pritchard; produced by Denis Héroux and John Kemeny; released by Paramount Pictures.
Starring Burt Lancaster (Lou), Susan Sarandon (Sally), Robert Joy (Dave), Hollis McLaren (Chrissie), Michel Piccoli (Joseph) and Kate Reid (Grace).