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‘Lansky’ Film Review: Harvey Keitel Has a Showdown with Mediocre Writing in Gangster Biopic

Tedious mobster biopic more often feels like a book report than an actual book

In his 80 years, Meyer Lansky worked alongside the most notorious gangsters in American history. He spearheaded a worldwide gambling racket and allegedly had quite a few people murdered for getting in the way of his business. Lansky even worked with the U.S. Navy during World War II, protecting the ships in New York Harbor from spies and and sabotage.

No one can deny that Lansky led a fascinating life, even after watching Eytan Rockaway’s tedious biopic “Lansky,” which has more in common with a book report than an actual book. Writer-director Rockaway (“The Abandoned”) hits all the major bullet points in the gangster’s life but ignores almost all the connective tissue that would make this outline of intriguing anecdotes really come alive.

“Lansky” stars Harvey Keitel as the aging mobster, living out his last remaining years in Florida, dying of lung cancer well after the rest of his criminal contemporaries have been buried. Lansky hires a writer in need of a break, David Stone (Sam Worthington), to listen to his life story and to publish a book from Lansky’s perspective, setting the record straight. The book can only be published after Lansky dies, but that just means that, perhaps, the full story of this career criminal’s life can be told without fear of self-incrimination.

Rockaway’s film takes Lansky from childhood crap games to his final chapter, stopping along the way to perfunctorily address his first marriage to Anna Citron (AnnaSophia Robb) and almost completely ignore his second marriage altogether. Rockaway’s film more warmly explores the gangster’s close friendship with Benny “Bugsy” Siegel. (David Cade of “Into the Ashes” who portrays Siegel as a loyal lackey who knows where his strengths lie.) There’s a twinge of tragic self-awareness in Cade’s performance, as though Bugsy knows ahead of time that being entrusted with too much power will be his downfall.

Young Lansky is played by John Magaro (“First Cow”), who makes Lansky sound like an adding machine with a chip on its shoulder. That’s not a bug, that’s a feature: Magaro’s performance deals in broad iconography, because as far as this movie’s concerned, he’s just a helpful illustration of Keitel’s monologues. Lansky the Elder gets to wax rhapsodic about his murderous career over breakfast at a Florida diner, while Lansky the Younger flits from anecdote to anecdote, helpfully visualizing Keitel’s rambling, self-serving story.

Keitel should be the draw here. There’s a playfulness to his performance that, with better material, could have made his Lansky a mischievous devil, or at least some kind of playful vampire. But instead of offering meaningful insight into Lansky’s life of crime (with occasional detours into decency), all Keitel’s got are thudding one-liners that would probably sound good in a trailer, but in casual conversation (or, you know, in a movie) come across as shallow platitudes.

“The only winners in gambling, as in life, are those who control the game,” Lansky intones, as if such wisdom could stem only from a life long-lived or a deep understanding of gambling. “We weren’t the underworld; we were the overworld” he declares, as if we should thank him for clearing that up. One can see at the edges of Keitel’s eyes an actor trying to bring these lines to life, but the dialogue was designed for posturing, not performing.

And then there’s Worthington, given the relatively cushy job of listening to Harvey Keitel talk. All’s well and good until the biographer is suddenly asked to play the protagonist for lengthy sequences; maybe the FBI is watching him, maybe his new girlfriend can’t be trusted, maybe his marriage is falling apart. But Stone’s relationship with Lansky doesn’t meaningfully inform or transform his life, despite a last minute attempt to wrap up their collaboration with something-something-something it’s all about family, as though anyone could look at Lansky’s history of spousal abuse and betrayal of lifelong friends and think, “Ah yes, that guy had good advice about the human spirit.”

It’s not that “Lansky” is awful. It just seems to settle early on for pure functionality, giving audiences the gist of the man’s life without having anything new or interesting to say about it. Lee Strasberg’s performance as Hyman Roth in “The Godfather Part II” was shorter, and only inspired by Lansky, but offers greater nuance than this whole film. John McNaughton’s mostly-forgotten HBO film “Lansky” covers similar material but with ruthless efficiency, cutting the middle man in favor of Lansky’s own, unfiltered, disturbing perspective.

Compared to other versions, or even in a vacuum, this particular “Lansky” biopic misses a valuable opportunity to explore a multifaceted individual in a powerful way. Rockaway’s film translates the life of a fascinating and deplorable human being into a merely competent summary of crimes which, ironically, are just a little too organized.

“Lansky” opens in select theaters and on demand June 25.