Where the Money Is opens with two high school graduates played improbably by Linda Fiorentino and Dermot Mulroney cruising down a nighttime road in their snazzy blue Mustang convertible. The color is muted to indicate this moment is Past: she wears a gown and sash proclaiming her “Prom Queen,” he’s in formal attire, driving and whooping with her in his lap. The wind blows her hair, the radio blasts the Cars’ “You Might Think,” and they’re just so deliriously in love that they can’t keep from kissing each other. Inevitably, the car careens across the road, veers towards a truck, avoids the crash and flies off an embankment. But it’s not so awful as you might think: the car lands in a ditch, headlights still on, and one of her lovely legs appears over the dashboard. You hear her laugh. Fade out.
Flashforward to these crazy kids a few years later, and what a surprise, they haven’t aged a day (at least that we can tell). What’s changed is their rambunctious daring. Now Carol (Fiorentino) is a nurse at an old folks’ home and Wayne (Mulroney) is working the nightshift at some job so nondescript it’s hard to tell what it is. Laboring away in separate shots, looking tired and bored, the couple is clearly stuck. When you do see them together at home for a minute, they’re crowded into the frame: she drinks from a bottle beer while sitting on the kitchen counter, he’s leaving for work. He pecks her on the cheek, bye hon! She pulls on her brew and rolls her eyes.
How sad, you might think, watching these opening scenes in Where the Money Is, that these beautiful and exuberant high school sweethearts have come to such dreary near-to-dead-ends. And this is precisely the point of the film’s set up, to encourage you to buy what comes next. It so happens that a famous bank robber the significantly named Henry Manning (Paul Newman) is transferred to Carol’s nursing home. He’s in a wheelchair and essentially comatose, having suffered a stroke in prison. But Henry’s nodding and drooling act looks shady to Carol, who is, as you’ve already noted, looking for some excitement and manly attention. She studies his performance and deduces what several doctors were unable to tell, that Henry is faking it. Then she reads up on his brilliant thirty-year career and decides that he’s her ticket out of nowheresville. Trying to get Henry to admit his ruse, she sits in his lap and gyrates: no response. Carol gets mad (he’s ignored her feminine wiles, which apparently always work on Wayne). She and the dubious Wayne take Henry on a “picnic” and, while Wayne’s off swimming, she rolls the old man in his wheelchair off the end of the dock.
Once Henry emerges from the water, understandably miffed but also intrigued by Carol’s nerve, the threesome engages in the standard bonding ritual in caper/con movies: they go for a drink in one of those deep-dark, neon-rich, neo-noirish bars that show up in every Ridley Scott movie (who, by the way, co-produced this one). Henry plays them from the start, leaning close into Carol on the empty dance floor to pique Wayne’s dunderheaded jealousy, then screeching away in their car after Wayne takes the bait and “cuts in.” The love triangle is thus established and, while there’s not much doubt with whom Carol will end up (at least for anyone who’s seen a Paul Newman movie that doesn’t co-star Robert Redford), the film means to drag out the caper plot, and so, must pretend she’s got a real choice to make, between Henry and Wayne. This plot involves an armored car, which they decide to steal at the beginning of its run, thus supposedly upping the tension factor, as their efforts to pose as the security guards and complete the run are conveyed in some detail: each stop has its potential problems: the nosy cop, the chatty guard, the change in routine, etc.
Because the screenplay by E. Max Frye and Topper Lilien & Carroll Cartwright (the and/& combination signals that the script has been passed around, not a good sign) is predictable enough that the lead actors and any available local color must carry the day. The latter consists largely of Carol’s coworkers and charges at the home (i.e., variously cranky, precious, or eccentric patients and staff members, including a haughty white head nurse and an amiable black nurse named Kitty [Diane Amos]). As for the leads, this is the kind of role that Newman could play in his sleep, as it were, having played all types of irresistible scamps and con-men during his long career. And it’s true, when he’s playing Henry during his waking phases (and even when he’s playing stroke victim), he is pretty much irresistible. It’s easy to see why director Marek Kanievska and cinematographer Thomas Burstyn focus their cameras on him from most every possible angle: he is mesmerizing, the iconic movie star.
But even as Newman is the most watchable element in an otherwise prosaic film, his most excellent presence also underlines specific reasons why the film falls short. First, Where the Money Is assumes as do many films that the vibrant young girl with a man old enough to be her grandfather is a viable romantic unit. Henry warns Carol as they dance that she should be worried someone will see her with someone old enough to be her “great-great-grandfather.” In offering this pre-emptive comment, the movie lets you know it’s aware of its troubled premise, but also allows the fantasy to percolate. Whose fantasy is it? Girls looking for daddies? Men looking for themselves? It’s not that such a pairing can’t happen, but in the movies, it is a kind of warped norm. Granted, Newman is the most believable grandfather to appear in such a role (competition is thin: Connery, Gere, Douglas, and coming up soon, Gibson). But it’s a convention that has less to do with narrative or real life possibility than with the movie industry’s stubborn adherence to a star system founded on gender inequalities.
And yet, Where the Money Is also hedges its romantic-coupling bet, omitting an expected final clinch scene while also suggesting that a beautiful partnership has been formed, through violence, perennially the “safest” representation of sex. However you imagine Henry and Carol together, from the movie’s start, the deck is stacked against Wayne. Though Carol convinces Henry to take on her husband as a third partner because she’s seen him in his high sports glory days, when he was “Clutch,” the movie never presents Wayne as a serious player. He’s nervous and awkward while plotting the job, while Henry just turns more and more suave. Even compared to Carol, Wayne comes up short: she’s restless and wanting to move on, while he’s content with no, immersed in and blinded by the status quo and wonders why she would even think she’d want to leave Podunk: in other words, the poor schlub hasn’t got a chance.
Second, Newman’s too-cool-for-school performance reminds you of all the variations on caper films he’s been in The Hustler, Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, The Sting, The Color of Money—which in turn makes you feel sad that caper-ish films (broadly defined, those involving cons) seem to be all washed up (and, let’s face it, there are signs of strain in Newman’s own, say, The Hudsucker Proxy, the Coen brothers’ ambitiously perverse retelling of the hoola hoop saga, i.e., the rise of modern consumer culture). Where the Money Is is unnecessarily glib, presuming on one hand that its audience knows all the tricks in its bag, and on another, that that same audience will welcome yet another rendering of said tricks. Repetition has its own pleasures, of course, and so produces genres and categories: you know what you’re getting off the Blockbuster shelf that reads “Action/Adventure.” But repetition can also bore, especially if it’s unconsidered: as Henry puts it, observing his new crew, this is “amateur hour.”
And third, Newman’s low-key, apparently non-acting acting style highlights an enduring and unanswerable question: what is celebrity? Where the Money Is addresses this dilemma upfront. Henry is a star, complete with a public history and thrilling reputation: as Carol researches him, she becomes increasingly enthralled and eager to win his favor, not to mention his money (or money he can get his hands on). Carol’s desire to escape her apparently endless small town ennui is all about that dream of stardom, being discovered and becoming a star in her own right. Outsiders make the most appealing stars, bucking systems and triumphing over stifling routines. And they embody a kind of mystery, resilience, and a strange majesty. “Be cool,” Henry instructs Wayne. “Look ‘em in the eye, but not like you’re gonna remember their faces.” Wayne will never understand this affect: it’s where the money is.