Fact is that Louis Malle isn’t one of my favorite filmmakers, owing to his rather…let’s call it leisurely pace. As a result, I’d never sought out his Atlantic City, so I was pleasantly surprised to find it — comparatively speaking — pretty spry. This is one of those movies where an array of quirky people (whom the less charitable might call losers) all end up — complete with their sad little dreams and delusions — in a single location and impact each other’s lives. In this case, the location itself — Atlantic City — is a lot like the characters — past its prime, trying to pretend otherwise, and getting cosmetic surgery to reinvent itself. The little corner of the city where the main characters intersect is beyond reinventing itself. It’s a rundown apartment building — of some architectural charm — that is slated for demolition as part of the gentrification of the city. If you can’t tell by now, Atlantic City trades heavily in metaphors — most of them effective even when they’re obvious.
The main characters are Sally (Susan Sarandon) — who works in one of the hotels at an oyster bar, but who dreams of remaking herself as a blackjack dealer — and Lou (Burt Lancaster) — an over-the-hill, one-time big deal (he says) gangster. who is now reduced to running numbers and servicing (in every sense) Grace (Kate Reid), who came to Atlantic City during WWII for a Betty Grable lookalike contest and never left. So we have one person dreaming of a better life and two others clinging to the vestiges of a past that probably never existed. Into this set-up come Grace’s ex-husband, Dave (Robert Joy), his very pregnant current wife (and Grace’s younger sister), Chrissie (Hollis McLaren) and a packet of cocaine Dave stole from some drug dealers in Philadelphia. This, as you may imagine, will not end well — at least for Dave. For the others, however, this might just fuel their close-to-burned-out dreams.
What could have been a tawdry melodrama — and aspects of it clearly are that — is transformed into something almost noble by the deepening, inherent dignity — ditsy as it is in some case — of all the characters except Dave. (Dave mostly exists to drive the story, and the only one who much cares when he dies is Lou, who, significantly, barely knew him.) The actors carry the day (this is probably Lancaster’s least toothy performance), suggesting depths that John Guare’s screenplay barely hints at. Malle’s direction — somber, yet slyly amused — is more assured than I would have expected, but then I’m not a fan. I am not — as many are — quite convinced that Atlantic City is a great film, but I suspect I will be revisiting it — and maybe I’ll find it is one day.
The Hendersonville Film Society will show Atlantic City Sunday, June 22, at 2 p.m. in the Smoky Mountain Theater at Lake Pointe Landing Retirement Community (behind Epic Cinemas), 333 Thompson St., Hendersonville.