Wednesday, May 6, 2009

The Films of Martin Scorsese Part XIV: The Color of Money

The Color of Money (1986) ***
Directed By:
Martin Scorsese.
Written By: Richard Price based on the novel by Walter Tevis.
Starring: Paul Newman (Fast Eddie Felson), Tom Cruise (Vincent Lauria), Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio (Carmen), Helen Shaver (Janelle), John Turturro (Julian), Iggy Pop (Skinny Player on Road), Forest Whitaker (Amos), Martin Scorsese (Opening Voiceover).

Out of all of Martin Scorsese’s features, The Color of Money feels the least like a Scorsese movie. While as a movie unto itself, it is definitely better than Boxcar Bertha, and probably better than New York New York (and perhaps even a few other of his “lesser” movies that will be coming up in this series), at least in those movies you felt Scorsese’s presence behind the camera. For better or for worse, they were Scorsese movies, and even if he couldn’t get out of the way of the movie, you knew he had at least made the movie his way. In The Color of Money, which is still a very well directed film, what is missing is Scorsese’s fingerprints. He does a good job as a director for hire here, especially in the scenes where the characters are actually playing pool, and Scorsese’s camera zooms around the table, but you have to wonder if the only reason Scorsese took the job was to work with Paul Newman. If that was the reason, fair enough. What director wouldn’t want to work with Paul Newman? It’s just a little disappointing that a Scorsese directed movie, starring Newman, not to mention a young, brash Tom Cruise in top form, and written by Richard Price – one of the great writers of dialogue of all time – turns out to be merely average. It should have been great.

If you’ve seen Robert Rossen’s 1961 masterpiece The Hustler, then no doubt you remember Fast Eddie Felson (Newman). In 1961, he was a young, cocky kid – better at pool than nearly everyone – but his cockiness got him in trouble. By the end of that film, his alcoholic wife (Piper Laurie) is dead, and he is banned by a gangster (George C. Scott) from ever hustling at pool again under the threat of death. But in the 25 years since then, Eddie hasn’t changed much. Now he sells cheap whiskey to bars, telling them that they can put it in old bottles of Jack Daniels or Wild Turkey and no one could tell the difference. He is still charming and good looking and everyone likes him. He is still successful. He is still, after all, Paul Newman.

He is still involved in pool, but not as a player. Now he stakes Julian (John Turturro), which essentially means he puts up all the money for him to play, and takes a cut of his winnings. One day in a bar, Julian gets beat repeatedly, and badly, by a young cocky kid named Vincent (Tom Cruise). Eddie sees a younger version of himself in Vincent, so soon he has dumped Julian, and decided to go on the road with Vincent, and Vincent’s girlfriend Carmen (Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio), who is slightly older, and way smarter than Vincent. Working with Carmen, Eddie transforms Vincent from a kid with raw talent, into the kind of player who can make real money. Vincent has trouble learning one thing – sometimes you can make just as much by losing, if not more, then you can by winning.

So essentially, The Color of Money is one of those surrogate father/son movies, where the grizzled veteran takes a younger man under his wing, and shows him the way. We’ve seen this movie before – many times before actually – and it’s a formula that Hollywood still uses at least a few times a year. There is nothing really original about the movie, and anyone who has seen stories like this before will not be surprised by what transpires in the film. Vincent goes from a young naïve kid, into a hardened pool hustler (the movie takes a short cut by not really showing us his transformation, as much of it happens off screen), while the veteran gets his passion for the game back. Soon, the two are going head to head at a pool tournament in Atlantic City.

What makes the movie work as well as it does is that performances work. Newman won the Best Actor Oscar for this movie, and while it is fairly undeniable that at least part of the reason why he won is because the Academy felt bad it had never given him an Oscar before despite nominating him seven times, part of it is also because Newman is great in the movie. He is in full movie star mode, something Newman did better than just about anyone else. At almost 60, Newman was still among the best looking men on the planet, and he uses his charm – that devilish smile, and those piercing blue eyes – to great effect. Even though we know Fast Eddie is stuck in a plot on autopilot, we believe him in every scene. This was probably a great experience from a young Tom Cruise as well – working with the world’s greatest director and a living legend of an actor, Cruise elevates his game above what he had done at that point. He is great at playing Vincent when he is a naïve kid, and he sells his transformation. There is an undeniable sexiness to Mastrantonio in the film as well. She knows who she is, and what she does best, and uses it to her advantage. He has Vincent under her control, and plays him just right. Add John Turturro and veteran Bill Cobbs to the cast, not to mention a young Forest Whitaker who is perfect in a small role and you have an amazingly well acted film.

As for the direction of the film, the best thing you can say about it is that it is professional. Most of Scorsese’s films feel timeless to me – that is despite some dating in the costumes, the films still feel contemporary no matter how long ago they were made. That isn’t the case with this film. From the overuse of montages, to the heavily synthesizer based score (by Robbie Robertson, from The Band), to the use of freeze frames at certain points, The Color of Money feels like a film made in 1986. Scorsese is at his best during the pool sequences, as his camera zips around the table, putting us right in the middle of the game (and also ensuring that we know that these actors are actually making those shots). It’s here when he lets himself loose, and you can start to see a little bit of Scorsese, at least visually, in the film. The rest of the film feels like it could have been directed by any number of other directors. It’s good, but almost by necessity, it isn’t great.

If I sound like I’m down on The Color of Money, I don’t really mean to be. I meant what I say when I say that I think the film is really well acted, and constantly entertaining from start to finish. Scorsese took a job as a director for hire, and he does his job well. You can hardly blame him for wanting to make a movie he knew would make money – after the box office failure of The King of Comedy and the cancelling of The Last Temptation of Christ, Scorsese was unsure if he’s ever direct again. After Hours gave him his love of filmmaking back again, but it was an indie film, so it didn’t exactly set box office records. Newman had control over who would get to direct the movie, and he was smart enough to know he wanted a great director, and to realize that no one was better than Scorsese. I just wish they had held out for a better screenplay. Richard Price is a great writer. His novels, including Clockers and the recent Lush Life, are filled with complex characters, and perhaps the best dialogue of any contemporary American writer. Here, I think, that perhaps his hands were tied by the fact he was adapting someone else’s work. The result of all these compromises was a film that was popular with audiences because it gave them exactly what they wanted. Scorsese had never really done that before – and he hasn’t really done that since either. The Color of Money is an undeniably good film. If I am disappointed with it, it’s because it’s not great, and with the elements this movie had, it should have been.

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