“Atlantic City” is a pseudo-American movie in the tradition of foreign filmmakers trying their hand on an American genre. In this case it is a Canadian production with the French director Louis Malle at the helm. Sometimes this results in refreshing takes on genres we thought we knew, such as Sergio Leone’s westerns, but more often it is either a pastiche or something a bit off from trying to add a foreign (usually European) element to the movie. “Atlantic City” falls into this last category.
In a rumpled Atlantic City, worn down by decades of use and abuse, Sally (Susan Sarandon) works in an oyster bar and trains to become a croupier. One day her husband, Dave (Robert Joy) shows up with Sally’s sister (Hollis McLaren) in tow. She is heavily pregnant with his child, and he has stolen dope from the mob which he intends to sell in Atlantic City. Sally is less than pleased.
In the same miserable building lives Lou (Burt Lancaster). He used to be a low-level gangster, but in his dreams he was a big shot in his youth. Now he is “kept” by Grace (Kate Reid), a former beauty queen and wife of Lou’s former boss. Not exactly a healthy relationship. Dave meets Lou and together they sell the dope for a small fortune. Unfortunately for Dave, the mob shows up, royally pissed, and kills Dave.
Lou has a thing for Sally and uses a lot of the windfall to woo her, but Sally gets fired because of her former husband and the gangsters are after both her and Lou and so they have to get out of this pickle together.
The dominant feeling in this movie is sadness. Overwhelming sadness. Atlantic City looks horrible, a place ready to be razed. The casinos look desperate and artificial, like a taped-on smile. Sally’s life is barely sticking together, but fueled by the hope that as a croupier she can get out of this dump. Lou is living a dismal and demeaning life filled with his dreams of his former glory, real or not, seeing a kick-ass gangster life as the top of the pops. Grace, his woman, is not much better, but adds a ton of bitterness to the mix. Dave is just a lousy looser and Sally’s sister lives in her own world that is put together in a different way that ours (she does not really believe in gravity…). As I mentioned, sadness all round.
The plot is not much different from that. Dave hopes that the big score from selling the dope will solve his problems, but he just gets killed for the effort. Sally’s dreams of going to Monaco gets shot down when she gets fired. Her former trainer even tries to set her up as a prostitute. Lou gets to live his dream as a kick-ass gangster with money and him regaining his self-respect is probably the most positive outcome here. Desperate and sad.
I like Louis Malle, he did some marvelous movies (Like “Au Revoir, les Enfants”), but here I think his European touch is just to make the actual lives of his characters extra miserable, while their dreams are even more unreachable. A bit like Herzog in “Stroszek”. As in exposing the fabled American Dream as desperate and unrealistic. It also, in my opinion, suffers from production value issues. Not on the acting side, the acting is great”, but the production just does not feel tight enough, even a bit sloppy or cheap at times.
“Atlantic City” is not a complete misery feast, but not for lack of trying. It is difficult to get it entirely bad with Susan Sarandon and Burt Lancaster in the leads, but what it is aiming for is so dirty and sad that I cannot help feeling like I need a shower after watching this.
The Academy loved “Atlantic City”. Although it did not win any awards, it was nominated in five categories, including the four big ones. I guess that is a testament to being successful at what it sets out to do. I am just not certain I can deal with that much sadness.