Today I watched Atlantic City, directed by Louis Malle in 1980. It sounded sort of dull when I first was reading descriptions of it, but I ended up totally loving it. It was such a sweet little movie. I loved all the characters, and the fact that Malle seemed to love them as well, and directed the film with much tenderness toward them. It wasn't a big, noticeable, important film, but it was a good film, and I'm very glad that I saw it.
The movie takes place in a small apartment building in Atlantic City. It's going to be demolished soon, and it's pretty run down already. The characters that we see there are Sally Matthews, a young woman who works at an oyster bar but wants to be a dealer in the casinos, Lou Pascal, an older man who used to be involved in the mob and who now works for Grace, a widow who sits around in her bed surrounded by poodles, making various and constant demands of Lou. Everything is pretty normal until Sally's drug dealing husband, Dave, returns. He wants to stay with Sally, and brings with him Chrissie, Sally's younger sister, who he ran away with. So, things get a bit upset, but everyone's life changes for the better, or something doofy like that.
The plot just works here, though. It sounds really normal and boring and like nothing special, but it really is. I liked the story, and I was surprised by it at points. I didn't expect Lou to be a numbers runner, no to so willingly get involved in dealing drugs with Sally's ex-husband. I liked that the plot was sort of simple and expected, because it gave me such a great opportunity to focus on the characters, who were totally not. It didn't take up all of my attention, and it didn't overshadow the characters, which some plots can do. I liked it - it wasn't groundbreaking, but it worked.
The characters are clearly the highlight of the film here. Ebert claims he knew people like the characters here, and stayed in a hotel at some point that was similar. I thought that was an interesting little fact. It made me look at the characters as maybe being more realistic than I had initially thought. At first it did seem a little fantastical. The hippies Chrissie and Dave, the hard working girl Sally, the crazy widow Grace, and the wise and interesting Lou - these characters all sounded pretty standard when I first started watching. They also were so over the top, in some way. The hippies were so fully decked out in all the standard hippy gear that it seemed unbelievable. Grace, laying in bed, ringing a bell to summon Lou for her every wish and whim seemed too far out to believe. I was interested in the characters when the film started, but I was worried they would just become cliches. To my delight, they didn't! They all really surprised me. I loved that Lou was totally different than what I expected, being such a calm and wise person but still willing to participate in crime and schemes. I had thought he might get forced or coerced into the drug dealing, but he just...does it. It was very surprising for me. I loved that Grace and Chrissie bonded as well, even though they initially disliked each other. I just didn't really expect the characters to do those things, and it was great to see that they were so much more complex than I thought initially.
As I grew to love the characters, I started to appreciate how much Malle loved them as well. He seemed to film them with tenderness and care, and give them so much space to shine. I really loved his direction here. It was amazing to me how a plot about drug dealing could actually seem so unimportant, because I was so fascinated by the characters. It was just so well done.
I want to just write about the characters, but I don't want to really give more away than I already did. Plus, due to procrastination and napping, it's almost 4am, so I probably should go to bed. I really liked this movie, and I hope that you guys check it out if you haven't seen it. It was fun for me to watch it because I am a big Boardwalk Empire fan, so it was cool to see a different side of Atlantic City. Nucky even gets named dropped at some point. I was so used to seeing the super glamorous and seedy side of it during the TV show that I was really curious to see how it looked during a different era, when it was more run-down and bleh. Anyway, let me know if you check this out!
Have any thoughts on Atlantic City? Share them in the comments!
Ebert's Great Movie Essay on Atlantic City
Buy it on Amazon