The Unbearable Sadness of Being:Atlantic City, 1980

I saw Atlantic City when it was first released in the states (It was completed in 1979, released in Europe in 1980, and in America in 1981) and I liked it. I thought it was a fine picture but not much more.

I was a kid. A cinematic babe in arms. A waif.

I watched it again recently, thirty years older and in the midst of a very stressful financial period due to factors beyond my control, and found it an extraordinary film, moving and unbearably sad. Truly and deeply sad.

But also redemptive, renewing and fulfilling.

Honestly, I was unprepared for how well the movie explores the themes of self-delusion and loneliness. Of nostalgia and longing. Of the cruel tricks played on all of us by life and how, usually, the smallest thing will bring us back.

The plot revolves around an aging numbers runner, Lou Pascal (Burt Lancaster), who also earns a few extra dollars acting as a personal assistant/nurse to a mobster's widow, Grace Pinza (Kate Reid). He lives across from Sally (Susan Sarandon) and watches her wipe herself down with lemon juice each night to wash off the fish smell she gets from the oyster bar in which she works. Into both of their lives walks Dave and Chrissie (Robert Joy and Hollis McLaren, respectively), Sally's husband and sister (now with Dave and bearing his child). Lou gets involved with Dave who's looking to score big with some cocaine he stole off of a dealer in Philadelphia. Lou makes the drop for him, Dave gets killed and Lou ends up with the money.

That's as much plot as you'll get from me because the plot isn't nearly as important as the idea of desperate people, interacting, fooling themselves and fooling each other. Lou never was a big time mobster and probably never wanted to be. All Lou ever wanted was for people to think he was a big time mobster. Sally wants to think he was, too, so she can pretend something good will come of her relationship with him. She also wants to believe she's going to be a world-travelled blackjack dealer. Grace believes her dead husband, Cookie Pinza, was a big shot and, by extension, she is too. And Sally's sister, well, she believes in everyone and everything.

The film's screenplay, by John Guare, is brilliantly composed, building its characters in snippets, moments and small talk. There are no laborious monologues or deep exchanges. None. Practically every line in the movie is surface, functional and utilitarian but succeeds at the same time in providing a kind of poetry of self-delusion that the characters use to ameliorate their lonely, desperate existences. Some of its lines are famous, like the one about the Atlantic Ocean. Lou, thrilled to be taken seriously by the young Dave and running out of things to memorialize, laments, "The Atlantic Ocean was something then. Yeah, you should have seen the Atlantic Ocean in those days." Other lines are less so but carry enormous power like when Buddy, an old friend of Lou who now works as a towel boy in a boardwalk restroom, gets a twenty from Lou and says, "Listen, when things start going good for me I'll make it up to you." He's in his late sixties working as a towel boy. Things aren't going to get good. Things aren't going to get better. Buddy's at the end of the line. It's over. But there he is, with a smile on his face, seemingly convinced that, yes, by God, things are going to get better. They have to, right?

This cast of characters vibrantly pulsates throughout the movie because its director, Louis Malle, never lingers over a scene unnecessarily. Most scenes have an exit cut the millisecond the last line is delivered. That line of Buddy's, for instance. As the final breath in the last word "you" is being exhaled, the scene cuts. It's as if, throughout, Malle is making the decision to show the viewer only what is absolutely necessary to express the scene. These are delusional people living just above the poverty line, not skilled orators. They say what they mean and move on.

Atlantic City came and went in 1981. It received marvelous reviews and many critics awards but never enjoyed the kind of lasting reverence afforded other movies of the time. Cinephiles know of it and older movie fans but it's not discussed much anymore. That's a shame. Burt Lancaster was never better and I'm including Elmer Gantry in that assessment. Susan Sarandon shows the great potential she would later fulfill. Robert Joy plays the loser husband at a perfect pitch and Kate Reid is wonderful as a woman who plays it tough but is really as delicate and fragile as anyone. I hope Atlantic City has a revival of sorts, and soon. It's a superb movie and deserves to be ranked alongside the best that the last thirty years has to offer.