Age has pared Paul Newman’s fine features to a sketch; it’s also honed his huge movie appeal to such basics that he can pretty much maintain our attention while in a coma. But as if to test his powers, in the shaggy and intriguing caper Where the Money Is, Newman plays Henry, a former famous bank robber and current guest of the prison system who actually IS in a coma, or at least a stroke-like state of suspended animation.
Slumped and glazed, Henry sits for hours in his wheelchair at the nursing home to which he has been transferred, tended to by Carol (Linda Fiorentino), a less-than-angelic nurse and onetime prom queen. Carol lives with her dull husband, Wayne (Dermot Mulroney), in the same drab town where they grew up. She’s as bored as a former prom queen always is. And she’s convinced that Henry – who has led the only interesting life around – is faking his stupor. So she bamboozles him into dropping his act, then promises to keep his secret if he’ll include her on just one more ”Bonnie and Clyde”-size heist. Her non-Clyde husband (and former prom king) comes along, too.
I don’t know that ”Where the Money Is” would work at all were it not for what we, the audience, bring into the theater. British director Marek Kanievska (”Less Than Zero”) certainly counts on our knowing that Newman’s fame is tied to playing heist pros and hustlers (”The Sting,” ”The Color of Money”) and that we’re not just seeing some gravel-voiced coot in a wheelchair; we’re seeing what Butch Cassidy might have become had he not messed up in Bolivia. The minimalist acting the star has done in recent films like ”Message in a Bottle” and ”Nobody’s Fool” serves him well because he’s confident – rightfully so – that the audience will fill in the blanks. Incorrigible Henry is fundamentally opaque, but canny Newman lets his blue eyes do the talking.
As for Fiorentino, the star of ”The Last Seduction” reprises her dangerous, restless-woman persona as if to remind us (and casting agents) that if she got every role currently going to Catherine Zeta-Jones, movies would be a lot more interesting. Kanievska and his team dabble a lot with color schemes and camera angles out of ”Twin Peaks,” but that’s not where the money is: The payoff is the clash between a taciturn bandit faking feebleness and an angry Florence Nightingale faking compassion, played by two actors who are the real thing.