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‘Lansky’ fails to capitalize on its chief asset: Meyer Lansky

Harvey Keitel plays the aging mobster in a biopic with too much emphasis on the journalist hearing his story.

Harvey Keitel plays the title role in “Lansky” as a real-life mobster looking back on his rise to power.
Vertical Entertainment

The notorious mobster Meyer Lansky was the inspiration for the Hyman Roth character in “The Godfather” and Max Bercovicz in “Once Upon a Time in America,” and actors from Richard Dreyfuss to Mark Rydell to Dustin Hoffman to Anatol Yusef to Patrick Dempsey to Ben Kingsley have played fictionalized versions of Lansky in various movies and TV productions through the years. Now Harvey Keitel takes a swing at portraying the “Mob’s Accountant” and Keitel is as reliable as he’s always been — but while this is a well-filmed and well-acted story, much of the material has been covered in superior movies.

Actually, two actors portray the titular character. In the scenes set in the early 1980s, during Lansky’s waning years when he was essentially retired and living quietly in Miami Beach, Keitel portrays Lansky as a soft-spoken, articulate and seemingly benign old man who looks like a thousand other senior citizens. During the frequent and prolonged flashback sequences, John Magaro portrays Lansky as a young man (and does a fine job), using his mathematical prowess and his keen eye for business to rise through the ranks and become a prominent force in the mob’s casino interests.

Unfortunately, writer-director Eytan Rockaway employs the tired storytelling device of having a talented but down-on-his-luck journalist interviewing Lansky for a book, with Lansky all too willing to tell his story — because if he weren’t, how would we get those flashback sequences? Sam Worthington’s David Stone checks into a crummy motel and tries to convince his wife he’s on the verge of a big payday (she’s had it with him), but he’s quickly distracted by Minka Kelly’s Maureen, a real stunner who just happens to be on vacation at the same motel and spends her days by the pool. For an accomplished journalist, David’s a real idiot when it comes to Maureen. It’s clear from the get-go she’s not just there by accident (and we’ll say no more), but he’s oblivious.

Keitel and Worthington have an admirable rapport in the scenes where David tries to pry information from Lansky, and Lansky often turns the tables on David. In the flashback sequences, AnnaSophia Robb is Anne, who quickly falls for the bad-boy Lansky but just as quickly turns into a deeply unhappy wife who berates Lansky for his lifestyle and blames him for their son being disabled; it’s God’s punishment. David Cade does a Warren Beatty-knockoff impression as Ben “Bugsy” Siegel, who is Lansky’s best friend and running mate but eventually gets in over his head while overseeing the construction of the Flamingo in Vegas (a story executed to much better effect in “Bugsy,” in which Warren Beatty played Siegel, Ben Kingsley was Lansky — and Keitel played Mickey Cohen).

“Lansky” does have some compelling sequences, e.g., when Lansky and Siegel assemble a group of tough Jewish men who bust up a meeting of American Nazis, but too much of the film is spent on the David Stone character and his entanglements. “Lansky” loses steam every time the focus is on somewhere other than Lansky.