Where the Money Is opens with what looks like a commercial for a perfume called "Wild Youth." Two reckless kids, drunk and giddy after their high school prom, careen down a country road in a ’66 Mustang convertible. They dodge trucks and swing from lane to lane, finally barreling off the road in a near-collision that sets the scene for a raucous bout of back seat sex.
It’s a vapid scene, shot in the lush black and white of a Calvin Klein ad and scored to The Cars’ "You Might Think I’m Crazy." The song explains the action in the most simpleminded way (they’re crazy kids, don’t you know), the actors are so far past high school that they look ridiculous, and the action is handled with such ineptitude that the simple geography – which car is where at what time – is never clear. Worse, the scene tells us nothing about the characters save that they were once young and horny.
Plodding, dull and endless at a short 89 minutes, Where the Money Is repeats the mistakes of that first scene again and again. Trading in coherence for flash, underlining each event with portentous music, remaining content with half-drawn characters and never missing an opportunity to pander, director Marek Kanievska works in the tradition of the film’s producers, Ridley and Tony Scott.
Like them, Kanievska began as a commercial director. He shares Ridley Scott’s fine pictorial sense. Each shot has a rich, dewy luster that pulsates from the screen. But he’s also cursed with the Scott brothers’ inattention to the characters who populate their films. One notices the beauty of the imagery because there’s absolutely nothing else going on in their work.
Screenwriters E. Max Frye, Topper Lilien and Carroll Cartwright had a promising idea for a caper movie. A restless small town nurse (Linda Fiorentino) discovers an aging bank robber posing as a stroke victim (Paul Newman) and convinces him to pull off one last heist. He distrusts her thickheaded husband (Dermot Mulroney), but decides to help her plan a complex robbery.
In different hands, it might be an involving film noir. Alfred Hitchcock might focus on the sexual tension between Fiorentino and septuagenarian Newman, exposing the perverse kick that fuels their crimes. (Kanievska has two short, early scenes that suggest a spark between the two, then drops the issue altogether.) Fritz Lang would give us a domestic view, where we’d see how the tensions of carrying out the heist tear away at the marriage. (Here, their unhappiness is telegraphed with such dogged obviousness that we know from the beginning that they can’t last.) Sam Fuller would provide an unflinching portrait of the sort of man who robs banks for a living and successfully fakes a stroke. (Newman is all boyish charm and roguish banter; we never have a clue why he does what he does.) Every intriguing complication is ignored or explained away, made as easy as possible.
The actors try to push past their underwritten roles, but they’re constrained by the mechanical plot. All their best moments are small bits of incidental business: Newman’s inspired evasion of a security guard, Fiorentino’s delighted smile at her new life of crime, Mulroney’s delayed reactions.
The film improves as it goes along, finally kicking into gear as the trio commits the robbery. Kanievska generates real tension in this extended sequence, and the film seems to have finally righted itself.
Until the end. Where the Money Is seems at that point to be building towards a climax that’s both emotionally true and in keeping with the essentially tragic nature of the genre. But it suddenly loses its nerve and substitutes a finale that is infuriating in its wish fulfillment and illogic. It’s the sort of audience-tested happy ending that Ridley Scott specializes in, as appalling as Blade Runner‘s breezy frolic after ninety minutes of dystopic blight or the perfectly noncommittal freeze frame that closes Thelma and Louise with such a thud. It takes a special sort of cynicism to append a nonsensical happy ending to a film noir, especially after you’ve made it clear just thirty seconds earlier that there’s no way out.