[Written for Mr. Showbiz]
The old guy transferred from the state pen doesn’t move much and says less. Nothing at all, actually. He’s had a stroke. That’s why he’s slumped in a wheelchair in another mossy state facility, a geriatric sanitarium, instead of occupying a cell. But his nurse, Carol (Linda Fiorentino), can’t accept that there’s nothing going on inside Henry’s sagging body and unresponsive brain. For one thing, he’s a legendary felon who led the law a merry chase for thirty years — hiring on to banks as a security adviser, for instance, then emptying their vaults. For another — and this is what really counts — he’s played by Paul Newman, fergodsake, and we just know that when he makes his move it’ll be a good one.
If Newman weren’t playing the enigmatic Henry, there’d be little to separate Where the Money Is from a hundred low-key, indie-class endeavors destined for straight-to-video limbo. The settings are few and nondescript (albeit subtly stylized in matters of color, Oregon regional texture, and very persuasive institutional anonymity). Action is minimal, dominated by dialogue (or, during Henry’s possum-playing phase, monologue). Although the sanitarium personnel, patients, and other peripheral folks have been intelligently cast and directed, the picture is essentially a three-character movie, and while Linda Fiorentino and Dermot Mulroney (as Carol’s husband Wayne) have both done deft work now and again, each has also disappeared into the wallpaper of countless forgettable flicks.
Carol’s fascination with Henry is supposed to hint at dissatisfaction with life in her Oregon backwater. We have the benefit of a clumsy prologue — Carol and Wayne doing wacky, hotrod-y things on their prom night — to establish their, or at least her, potential for busting out. Once Carol has cracked Henry’s cover with an act of sink-or-swim brazenness, she and he form a flirtatious bond that at first kinda tickles good ol’ Wayne — since, of course, Henry is really old — but then starts to worry him. This being a movie, we can take for granted that before long there will be a caper plot, during which we’ll get to watch the motives and loyalties of the team members tested.
What’s interesting about all this is how deliberately director Marek Kanievska et al. strive to avoid juicing it up. Apart from an occasional indulgence like hanging the camera from the chandeliers, Kanievska maintains a laidback style and encourages his cast to do likewise. Nothing is overinflated, or inflated at all. While it’s entirely conceivable that the caper might go wrong and end with Wayne and Carol joining Henry behind bars, there’s never any threat that the movie will lurch into the kind of gratuitous last-reel apocalypse so many crude filmmakers resort to.
Such discretion makes for a pleasant change of pace — if only there were more pace. Newman is a pleasure to behold; this is his first opportunity in decades to trot out his genial slyness and let it stretch in the sun. But neither of his costars really interacts with him, and their marriage is seriously underwritten, a fatal weakness toward the end. Speaking of the script, E. Max Frye was the writer of Something Wild (1986), a great Jonathan Demme movie in which becalmed citizen Jeff Daniels had his life overturned and opened up by his encounters with outlaw types Melanie Griffith and Ray Liotta. That movie took memorable chances and broke fresh ground in America’s imagining of itself. Where the Money Is hazards nothing to speak of and asks chiefly to be congratulated for its modesty.