Where the Money Is
April is often the cruelest month, not just for Eliot but for film critics too. Between the dogs and the mediocrities, and with exceptions like 1999's brilliant "A Walk on the Moon," we just grit our teeth and wait for May and the first of the international festival releases. What prompts this little rant is "Where the Money Is," the Paul Newman/Linda Fiorentino/Dermot Mulroney caper film, a film that could -- that should -- have been both delicious and sexy, and instead ended up as just another mediocrity.
The setup is fine: Newman, a famous, aging bank robber now serving a long prison sentence, carefully orchestrates a fake stroke so he'll be sent to a nursing home, where, uh-oh, trailer-trash nurse Linda Fiorentino recognizes his con and insists that he help her and her husband with a heist of their own. Since Newman's erstwhile partner has run off with his share, he now agrees to mastermind the plan. They will rob an armored truck as it makes its rounds one night, collecting lots of cash from everything from a gas station to a big concert hall.
So far, so good. Newman gives us everything in his repertoire, from the blank stare of the stroke victim to the flair and wit of an old-timer enjoying the return to his adrenaline-charged element. Fiorentino, probably the sexiest actress in films today, is an odd but effective choice as the trailer-trash prom queen who married her prom king and lived to regret it. Mulroney is the not-too-bright husband who's gotten by for too long on looks alone.
The plot structure of the film follows the classic rules of caper movies, which require that there be careful planning, followed by a high-adrenaline step-by-step execution of the heist, interrupted by the requisite unexpected threats to success, ending with a good outcome, and a coda that sets the protagonists on their way to somewhere new. Occasionally a caper film will bend the rules and improve on them, and a wonderful example is the 1999 version of "The Thomas Crown Affair," which came as close to perfection as the genre permits.
So why does "Where the Money Is" fail, even though all rules were carefully followed, and even though Fiorentino lends an erotic component that's rare in this kind of film? The first problem is the script, which tries its best to give us more than is needed to move things along. In trying to add depth to its characters it just leans on the obvious, and then skirts close to what you might call the limits of nursing-home life when it has Fiorentino do a lap dance on Newman's wheelchair. And although the film runs only 89 minutes, it also takes too long to get into the heist itself.
The second problem is both less apparent and more serious, and it lies in Marek Kanievska's direction. The way to direct a caper film is to treat it as a documentary record of a crime, with us present as witnesses, so that we believe it is actually happening. The director must let scenes play out, almost in real time, in order to squeeze the most tension out of each moment. We in the audience should want to shout, 'You're taking too much time! Get away!' Instead, Kanievska chops each scene up, dicing and shredding the story to within an inch of its life. He seems afraid to let a scene or a sequence play out in its own rhythm, afraid to choose a camera angle and stick with it. In a film, every moment has one right and an infinity of wrong choices, of lens and lighting and camera angle. Here it's as though Kanievska just said, 'Let's shoot it from all over, and that way we're bound to get something right.'
Newman says that he'd like to do one more film and then wrap up his career. We must hope that he'll choose a better one than this.