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Reviews » DVD Video Reviews » Atlantic City
Atlantic City
Paramount // R // May 14, 2002
List Price: $24.99 [Buy now and save at Amazon]
Review by Gil Jawetz | posted June 23, 2002 | E-mail the Author
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C O N T E N T
V I D E O
A U D I O
E X T R A S
R E P L A Y
A D V I C E
Highly Recommended
E - M A I L
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P R I N T
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THE STRAIGHT DOPE:
A phrase often used to describe Louis Malle's 1981 film Atlantic City is that it is a film about beautiful losers. It's a romantic but accurate description. Burt Lancaster plays Lou, a small-time numbers-runner who spends his time longing for the mobster days of the past. Susan Sarandon plays Sally, a new girl in town with her eye on becoming a blackjack dealer. Both are lonely, sad individuals with questionable pasts and uncertain futures.

From the opening moments there is a sense of longing and desperation. Lou watches Sally perform a ritual involving rubbing lemon juice on her breasts through the window. It's a mysterious way to open a film, but it immediately sets the disconnected tone that the film sustains. Lou wants what he can't have and the sensual way Lancaster eye's peer from between his drawn blinds makes him seem more pathetic than perverted. Sally, on the other hand, seems retreated into some inner world, completely oblivious to anything around her. The more we get to know these two characters the more we see their weaknesses and flaws. The film knows better than to embroil them in an overly complicated plot; Lou just wants one moment in the spotlight to feel alive and young. This isn't Mission: Impossible, although the odds seem just as long.

Lancaster's performance is a masterpiece of subtle emotion. He bridges the styles of classic drama and modern naturalism with his wit and his gravity. His Lou is one of the most profoundly sad characters in modern film, lamenting the cleaning up of Atlantic City (which happens right before our eyes as the film incorporates footage of the old buildings being knocked down to clear the way for more Trump casinos) and then turns around and talks about how even the Atlantic Ocean used to be better in the old days. When he finally finds action, he's excited like a little kid. Even though he dooms himself, the very possibility that he could be affecting his own future is ennobling.

Sarandon, who seems pretty young here, doesn't have any of the mannered over-acting that sometimes creeps into her performances. She's completely believable as the wide-eyed naive Sally. Her hope for the future flies in the face of reality and when her past returns to haunt her, her anger is palpable. The chemistry she shares with Lancaster is truly one of the most unexpected and memorable pairings in film. These two characters, who spend really very little time together, bond over both their shared illusions and realities.

Malle's direction of the film is astonishingly simple. Using the locations of Atlantic City's dual opulence and despair, as well as the sounds of the city (one tense chase through an automated parking lot is scored simply with the mechanical rumblings of the hydraulic system) blend beautifully to create the tough, gritty, unsentimental film. Even though Atlantic City is about characters stuck in the past the film never resorts to glorifying unseen history. It shows the present to be deeply unsatisfying and inescapable. Like Bruce Springsteen's haunting song of the same name (which does not appear in the film), Atlantic City is about how "Everything dies and that's a fact. But maybe everything that dies someday comes back." Lou shares that hope.

VIDEO:
The video on this DVD is vastly improved over the original VHS release. The transfer is anamorphic widescreen and, although it recreates the film's gritty, grainy look, it is a pleasure to watch. There are a few flaws here and there but overall this transfer looks terrific.

AUDIO:
The Dolby Digital mono audio is surprisingly lively. Even though it is a simple mix it has energy, range, and crisp, clear dialog. Optional English subtitles are included.

EXTRAS:
Only a trailer.

FINAL THOUGHTS:
Atlantic City is a mature, adult film about adult characters. This bears mentioning since these days even grown-up films seem dumbed down. But the work here of both the late Louis Malle and the late Burt Lancaster, along with Sarandon's fine performance, combine to create a total sum that is heartbreaking, beautiful, and completely affecting.

Email Gil Jawetz at buskerdog@yahoo.com

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