`Lansky' just a misstep by Mamet

Review: The playwright tries to make us love the legendary crime boss, but we don't.

February 27, 1999|By David Zurawik | David Zurawik,SUN TELEVISION CRITIC

With Richard Dreyfuss starring and a script by David Mamet, you might think "Lansky," an HBO film about the legendary crime boss, would be something special.

But you would be wrong.

The film, which premieres tonight, does feature a fascinating, though ultimately not very engaging, performance by Dreyfuss. Can you recall any performance by him that wasn't at least interesting?

But Mamet, who also serves as executive producer, made some bad choices in deciding how to best tell the story of Meyer Lansky, proving that even great writers aren't always great. Trying to make us love Lansky, who is as responsible as any figure in American history for the corporatization of crime, was the worst of the choices. But there's a lot to learn from Mamet's mistakes, especially about ethnicity and storytelling.

John Matoian, the president of HBO Pictures, tried to defend Mamet's choices by saying: "This is not a traditional bio-pic in any stretch of the imagination. It is not a cradle-to-grave story. It is rather a memory piece put together in only the puzzling kind of way David Mamet can write.

"It is, in Lansky's own words in the film, a jail-house tale," Matoian added. "You get older, you find out it's not so much that things disappear as they get re-recorded according to a different order of understanding. And it took a genius like David Mamet to write it."

That insight about memory and its implication for telling life history in flashback is great. But the execution of it in "Lansky" isn't. Great execution would be Dennis Potter's 1988 "The Singing Detective," on PBS, for example.

In "Lansky," the present is 1972, and Lansky is 70 years old. He's remembering his life in bits and pieces as he tries to find a country that will take him in. He's been refused citizenship in Israel due to pressure from the United States, which wants to put him on trial.

At its core, the film is a series of flashbacks. It's almost impossible to keep the players straight, unless you are absolutely steeped in the history of organized crime during the first half of the century.

There's Meyer as an adolescent, a dirt-poor immigrant Jew in New York, who loses the money his mother gave him to buy bread for the Sabbath dinner to a crooked dice game run by Irish boys. There's the Irish gang calling Meyer anti-Semitic names. There's Meyer going back and hitting one of them over the head with a brick. Who's the kid helping little Meyer, the one he's calling Benny? Is that Bugsy Siegel as a boy? Wait, let me get my copy of "Lives of the Great American Murderers and Thugs" to check it out.

The anti-Semitic taunting in tenement America is only an extension of the recurring flashback of Meyer as a boy in Russia watching Cossacks slaughter helpless Jews. The loud and clear message of the film: Anti-Semitism and violence against Jews made Lansky what he was. And, by the way, what he was wasn't so bad. He wasn't a bloody criminal like those Sicilians. As Lansky keeps saying in the film: "I'm only a gambler. Nothing else."

Fred Zollo, co-executive-producer of "Lansky," explained Mamet's celebration of the gangster by saying, "I think that Mamet, who has long been fascinated with Meyer Lansky, has a very favorable view of Lansky, and it's tied up in Mamet's Jewishness and Lansky's Jewishness and the immense prejudice and horrors that young people like Lansky suffered. And so I think Mamet embraced the character."

Anti-Semitism is terrible, and ethnic identification is nice. But what about the truth? What if it were an African-American writer celebrating O. J. Simpson as a hero?

Would we justify that wrongheaded revisionism and praise the film, saying it's tied up in the writer's blackness and Simpson's blackness and the immense prejudice that young people like Simpson suffered?

Maybe Mamet's intentions were good, but they ultimately led him to make a muddled and dishonest film.

`Lansky'

When: 8-10 tonight

Where: HBO

Pub Date: 2/27/99

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