The National Catholic Review
Where the Money Is

For years my shaving mirror has tried to convince me that I look just like Paul Newman: baby blues, wavy hair (with just a sprinkling of salt amid the pepper), sharp, assertive chin and that drive-the-ladies-wild roguish grin, with just a touch of worldly wisdom revealed in the perfectly etched lines around the outside corners of my eyes. In occasional, brief lapses into reality, I used to think that the mirror lies. Now I’m not so sure. Maybe now I look like Newman after all.

Where the Money Is opens with Henry, my would-be doppelganger, entering strapped into a wheelchair, eyes vacant and dull, hair wispy, face expressionless. The famous chin lolls pointlessly on his chest, and the lips, dry and receded, may mask a mouth long emptied of teeth. He is a likely candidate for president of the drool-in-your-gruel gang at the nursing home, where the state has sent him to vegetate until it can add more beds to the prison hospital. Felons, it seems, age and grow infirm, just like every other segment of the population.

Coach Carol (Linda Fiorentino), a nurse and physical therapist, scarcely interrupts her routine with the varsity live-one-more-day team. They are practicing deep breathing, while they turn brightly colored plastic discs 90 degrees on command. That magnificent throaty voice makes "Breath in, turn right; breath out, turn left" sound like Eve’s description of the apple. It’s sinister, sultry and a bit bemused by life. In this athletic program, Henry will not even make second string. In fact, the effects of his stroke keep him so high in the bleachers that he cannot even see the gamenot that he is interested anyway.

Have no fear. The actor hasn’t drawn a Newmanesque salary for sitting in a wheelchair staring at his lap for an hour and a half, nor would the masterminds of Burbank expect audiences to fork over eight to ten non-tax-deductible dollars to watch an embalming party for Butch Cassidy. We smell something rotten, even though we are far from Denmark.

Carol has a nose for overripe halibut, too. Intrigued by the idea of having a notorious bank robber among her clientele, she riffles through Henry’s file and learns that this new cad on the block has built his life out of outsmarting the authorities. The only arrest in his career came as the result of a power failure in Denver, which left him locked overnight in the bank vault he was visiting. Somehow, Carol reasons, this legendary bandit could not be the helpless wreck she feeds and dresses in her daily rounds.

Carol is determined to smoke him out. Failing to get a response to her formidable and very funny powers of seduction, she resorts to more drastic strategies. Her last desperate attempt works, and Henry lets her in on the scam. During those long years in stir, Henry studied mind and body control so that he could convincingly fake a massive stroke. He realized that a hospital or nursing home would be easier to bolt than a cell block. For her own good reasons, Carol agrees to keep his little secret, at least for a while.

Nurse Carol was not born in a white drip-dry uniform. During the opening credits, she rides in a convertible with her boyfriend after their high school prom. Both are drunk and reckless, a prom queen and her escort wrapped in youth’s imaginary mantle of immortality. The inevitable car crash bonds them for life, and years later, she finds herself imprisoned in a dull town with a hateful job, with a husband who is both dull and hateful. Wayne (Dermot Mulroney) still likes to drink beer and shoot hoops with the guys. His job is leading nowhere, but he thinks everything is just fine. Wayne shows little interest in growing up, while Carol realizes that she has grown up faster than she ever intended. Her work has torn away any illusion of immortality.

This is the point of the story. Carol and Henry are both time’s prisoners trying to bust out of their own respective slammers, and they need each other to succeed. With Carol’s help, Henry slips out by night, contacts his former business associates and tries to retrieve some of the loot from his past enterprises. In the meantime, by day the home provides a perfect hide-out. With Henry’s inspiration, Carol dares to imagine a life of adventure and wealth far removed from endless bingo games and endless dullness with Wayne. Could it be that Thelma or Louise had a kid sister?

Once again the old bromide about "honor among thieves" holds as much truth as "the dog ate my homework." Henry’s money has fled, without Henry. He needs a new caper to copper his coffers. It’s time for one more scheme, a grand finale of felony. But he needs a team. He worries that Carol and Wayne are junior varsity at best, but he has no choice. At age 75, he knows he can’t pull an armored-car heist all by himself. Carol shows talent, but Wayne is manifestly and irredeemably a jerk. Henry knows that his life is late in the fourth quarter, and there is no way he will punt.

Like most movie capers, this one stretches credibility, but so what? It’s governed by a higher logic than the mundane real world. The script asks us to believe, for example, that an experienced geriatric nurse cannot accept the fact of aging and debilitating illness in her patients. The whole plot hinges on her determination to prove that Henry’s stroke is bogus. And her amateur detective work in turn depends on a belief that Henry’s mastery of body control enabled him to convince teams of doctors that his catastrophic stroke was genuine.

The fun comes from characters, not credibility. Paul Newman’s Henry is a delectable rogue. His face seems locked in the continual wink of the most mischievous little boy in school who knows his grin can charm the principal out of detention. He is Tom Jones on Geritol. On the day he comes clean, Henry spends the morning Velcroed into his wheelchair, and the evening drinking straight whiskey and dancing so closely with Carol that they might as well be sharing the same skin. Wayne feels constrained to cut in and reassert property rights over his wife. Aha! This apparent flirtation struck the precise spark of jealousy in Wayne that Henry had intended. While Wayne pouts and preens, Henry robs him of his second (after Carol) most prized possession. In fact, as their partnership advances, we begin to share Wayne’s suspicion that Henry and Carol might in fact be romantically involved. An ex-con in his 70’s who can raise those suspicions in the alleged mind of a narcissistic muscle-freak like Wayne has to be a folk hero. He makes us want to believe that he can pull off this one last bank job despite the absurdity of the scheme.

Incidentally, the title of the film (uncrediteddare we say stolen?) comes from the legendary bank robber and jail-breaker Willie "The Actor" Sutton. When asked why he robbed banks, Sutton is supposed to have replied, with a logic reminiscent of Groucho Marx, "because that’s where the money is." Perhaps if we asked these actors, along with the director Marek Kanievska and the writers E. Max Frye, Topper Lilien and Carroll Cartwright, why they made such an old-fashioned crime-comedy caper, they might respond, "because that’s where the fun is."

"Where the Money Is" is surely more fun than staring into a shaving mirror and wrestling with delusions and self-deception. Wait a minute. If I turn my face this way, into the light, and maybe if I lost a little weight....

Richard A. Blake, S.J., is professor of fine arts and co-director of the Film Studies Program at Boston College.

Recently in Film