The king of the hustlers pulls off one more sting

Where The Money Is (15) | Director: Marek Kanievska | Paul Newman, Linda Fiorentino, Dermot Mulroney And Susan Barnes | 87 Mins
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The Independent Culture

The Big Picture

The Big Picture

For the first 20 minutes of Where The Money Is, Paul Newman presents a dismaying sight. He plays Henry, a former bank robber who now sits hunched and glazed in a wheelchair, paralysed by a stroke. Everything is in closedown. Even as a seventysomething, the lineaments of Newman's chiselled beauty could be discerned, but here the head lolls low, and there's no light to be seen in those famous blue-grey eyes. The authorities have decided to transfer Henry to a nursing home, where he can be supervised alongside so many other liver-spotted oldsters about to do their final shuffle.

Henry has in fact fooled everyone - or almost everyone. Carol (Linda Fiorentino) is the nurse who has been assigned to him; she's bored with her work, yet diligent and sufficiently alert to notice that Henry's not quite as helpless as he seems. A little contest ensues. She sneaks up on her patient and gives him a fright. No reaction. She does a lap-dance on him - this is Linda Fiorentino in a nurse's uniform, don't forget. Not a twitch. Either it's superhuman self-discipline or else his brain really has checked out.

Finally they go for a drive, stop for a riverside picnic and she takes him for a long walk off a short pier. He emerges soaked and spluttering from his dip; next thing you know the two of them are dancing at a roadside bar and telling each other the story of their lives.

It's a relief to have the glint of shrewdness back in Newman's gaze. He has become such a master of the screen heist and hustle - Butch Cassidy, The Sting, The Hustler - that seeing his name under a movie called Where The Money Is feels comfortingly right.

Marek Kanievska's film can't hold a candle to those earlier pictures, and in terms of plot it's as threadbare as an old sock, and about as exciting. But Newman has magic in his bearing, and carries in that wonderful face the memories of great performances past, so it's no hardship to go along for the ride.

Henry has apparently spent two years perfecting his stroke-victim impersonation so that he can get transferred to the nursing home and arrange to collect his share of the booty from an old score. But his former partner has stiffed him, and he won't be getting a red cent.

Which is where Carol comes in. Her life has hit the wall - her small-town job doesn't satisfy, her husband, Wayne (Dermot Mulroney), doesn't listen to her. "We were king and queen of the prom, so it sort of made sense to get married," she tells Henry. "When did it stop making sense?" he asks her.

Scenting a clean break, she decides to take the traditional caper-movie shortcut and knock over a bank, enlisting Henry as mastermind. The blot on the horizon is Wayne, who gets wind of their plan and muscles in on it. Indeed, Mulroney's heavy presence is an albatross around the film's neck, slowing it down just when it seems about to soar. He has the tell-tale signs of the unsatisfactory husband, like hunkering too closely over his food and speaking with his mouth full, or being too readily moved to jealousy just because his wife enjoys an understanding with another man. It's an unfortunate part; caught between Newman's quicksilver improvisation and Fiorentino's panther-like grace, he's bound to seem a bit of a dummy.

Some might be expecting sexual sparks to fly between Henry and Carol, but there's a mutual respect in these performers that seems to have taken all that "chemistry" for granted and gone beyond it into relaxed companionship. We don't need to see Newman and Fiorentino exchange hot-eyed glances to know that they'll get along just fine with each other.

Fiorentino made her name, of course, as the bitch goddess of modern noir in The Last Seduction, since when she's been stuck for an encore. She's been wasted in blockbusters ( Men in Black) and thrillers ( Jade, Unforgettable) alike, and perhaps now wonders if The Last Seduction was a pinnacle from which everything else must point downhill. I hope that's not the case, because there's a lightness in her comic touch here that's very appealing indeed; it won't be a milestone in her career, but it won't do her any harm either.

Given the strength of its two main stars, it's a pity that the film's second half doesn't give them something more memorable to do. Their plan has been to appropriate an armoured car, masquerade as security guards and drive around collecting huge bundles of cash, a robbery in stages that feels slightly too mechanical in its success.

There's a nice moment of panic when Carol, about to be rumbled by a security guard, manages a nifty bit of phone improvisation and draws admiring gasps from her partners in crime, but it's really the only time the heart briefly considered skipping a beat.

As for the finale, I'm still trying to work out what happened between Henry hearing the police ordering him to come out with his hands above his head ("You haven't lived until you've heard someone say those words") and the moment when Carol's car plunges headlong into the river and disappears. While one accepts that this is a caper, some small adherence to the laws of probability would not go unappreciated.

Still, we don't seek out a film like Where The Money Is for soundness of plot; we go because it's an opportunity to watch a great performer who's still notable for his relaxed authority, sly wit and, damn it, his sexual magnetism.

At 75, Paul Newman is the standard bearer for Pensioner Power.