'Money': Sticky time with bags of dough

September 10, 1993|By Steve McKerrow | Steve McKerrow,Staff Writer

Be honest, now. Would you? Could you? And how would you do it?

If you found two sacks containing $1.2 million in $100 bills, lying in the street after bouncing out of an armored truck, would you try to keep the money?

In "Money for Nothing," a deftly filmed dramatization of a real incident that made national headlines in 1981, John Cusack decides instantly.

Playing an out-of-work Philadelphia longshoreman, Joey Coyle, Mr. Cusack's eyes bulge at the sight of all those Ben Franklin bills. You almost hear his mind exploding with dreams come true.

"Finders keepers, Kenny," he tells his friend (Michael Rapaport) who wants to give the dough back.

"Possession is nine-tenths of the law," Joey chants, as if arguing his case with himself.

Soon, as the news breaks, everybody in his working-class neighborhood in South Philly is talking about the bonanza and speculating what they'd do with such a windfall.

If they gave an Academy Award for non-verbal acting, Mr. Cusack would deserve it. As he strolls through the corner bar listening to patrons' financial fantasies, his facial expressions and body language scream with the tension of keeping the secret.

And, of course, he doesn't keep it long. All that carefully registered Federal Reserve cash cannot be spent until it is "laundered," turned into untraceable amounts.

Joey sees just two options: approaching his ex-girlfriend Monica (Debi Mazar, who bears watching), a dark-eyed beauty trying to move up and out of the old neighborhood as an investment counselor, or his high school buddy Dino (Benicio Del Toro), a small-time bookie with mob connections.

It would spoil things to reveal much more, except to say Joey's life gets far more complicated and far less fulfilling than he imagined when he grabbed up his potential treasure. And it is all done in engaging, believable style.

Michael Madsen, as a working-class cop trying to get the money back, and Maury Chaykin, as a philosophical mob guy, deserve note for effective characters. And Ms. Mazar's turn as the wannabe yuppie may remind viewers of Marisa Tomei's Oscar role in "My Cousin Vinny" -- but it seems more real.

Promotional trailers have made this seem a caper film, but "Money for Nothing" fits the black-comedy category better. It's full of laughs about things that are not so funny: unemployment, classism, greed, despair and loss.

The subtext plays blue-collar dreams against rock-bottom values. And while one message is that money corrupts, another is that it does not corrupt absolutely.

For not everybody in "Money for Nothing" sees all those C-notes as a dream come true. And for Joey, it turns out to be a nightmare.

"Money for Nothing"

Starring John Cusack, Michael Madsen and Debi Mazar

Directed by Ramon Menendez

Released by Hollywood Pictures

Rated R

** 1/2

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