Fabrizio del Wrongo writes:
Like “Nashville,” the 1980 “Atlantic City” is an essayistic treatment of a city. But it’s not brash and satirical like “Nasvhille”; it’s glancing and melancholy-romantic — a loser’s lament. It’s to director Louis Malle’s and writer John Guare’s credit that they emphasize the lament over the loser. Unlike the similarly themed “The King of Marvin Gardens,” the movie doesn’t hold your nose to the rot; rather, it lifts it out of it. Burt Lancaster plays Lou, a past-his-prime operator who lives to sustain his self-image. As a young man, during the heyday of Atlantic City, he was a mobster’s lackey, an errand boy, but in his mind his past and the city’s former glamour are interwoven. He’s adopted the city’s legend as his own. It’s how he copes. The screenplay requires Lancaster to embody the spirit of Atlantic City. It’s a corny idea, but Lancaster carries it, and your surprise at seeing him carry it is part of what lifts the movie up, makes it feel a little dizzy, like an Astaire-Rogers number. Lancaster’s peculiarly aristocratic italicization is used to suggest the manner in which Lou soft-shoes around the obstacles of reality. Lou is acting, but everyone indulges him; he indulges himself. His self-delusion is a kind of gallantry, a means of ameliorating hardness and decay. Like an habitual gambler, he’s pathologically hopeful, and perhaps we recognize something of ourselves in his commitment to kidding himself. (In many ways, the movie anticipates Woody Allen’s “The Purple Rose of Cairo.”) When Lou becomes involved in a punk kid’s cocaine score, it’s hard not to recognize it as a metaphor for Atlantic City’s flirtation with legalized gambling. Both are morally dicey propositions that promise a return to glory and influence. If Lou is intended to connect with and lovingly subvert our notions of movie tough guys, Susan Sarandon’s Sally is meant to recall the showgirl of the ’20s and ’30s. Like Lou she’s tied herself to a fantasy, but hers is pre-corrupted: Once gambling is legalized, she’s gonna make it as a croupier. (Even Lou doesn’t buy it, though he humors her.) Sally’s casino classes, led by that old satyr Michel Piccoli, are kitchen-sink reflections of the drilling scenes common to backstage musicals. There’s no glamour in them except for what Sally puts there in her imagination. It’s a fugazi put-on glamour, a willing-itself-into-existence glamour, an Atlantic City glamour. “Atlantic City” features some of the most thematically precise location shooting in movie history. You can’t see a crumbling resort structure, noble in its decrepitude, without thinking of Lancaster, stately and tall like a building, and his resiliently ornamental Lou. Everything works on multiple levels. That multivalent quality is built into the conception. Perhaps its responsible for the movie’s peculiar hum.