When, at the recent Oscar ceremony, Steve Martin used a mug shot of Nick Nolte from a DUI arrest as a punch line, the joke seemed shoddier than if its butt had been a typically callow movie-star bad boy. Not to get too maudlin, but there’s something heroic about Nolte’s ruined physiognomy—something that doesn’t seem right to jeer. Nolte’s hard living—and I mean the emotional turbulence as much as the drug and alcohol abuse—is right there in the deep creases of his face, with its beefiness and its hollows, in the doleful hoods over his eyes, and in the bottomless voice that has dropped so far it sounds like a lyrical belch. Botox and plastic surgery have made many once-transparent actors tight and masklike, but Nolte remains endlessly readable. Even when his characters can’t express themselves, the effort to signal through the fog carries its own, indelible eloquence. Nolte is the Eugene O’Neill of actors.
I’m not romanticizing addiction or suggesting that one has to be a junkie to play a junkie, etc., and I’m not suggesting that Nolte’s new sobriety isn’t a sound idea. But there are wrecks and there are mythic wrecks, and Nolte is like a wreck from a more fabled era: of Hemingway and Bogart and John Huston and Sterling Hayden. The latter’s performance in Huston’s The Asphalt Jungle (1950) was one of the inspirations for Jean-Pierre Melville’s existentialism-as-personal-style thriller Bob le flambeur (1955), the tale of a Montmartre gambler’s doomed attempt to knock over a casino—which is, in turn, the inspiration for Neil Jordan’s magical remake, The Good Thief (Fox Searchlight). As the chivalric gambler Bob Montagnet, Nolte’s vague resemblance to Hayden (and, for that matter, Huston) brings this story of an incorrigible risk-taker full circle.
Jordan’s remake isn’t a major work, and I’m not convinced that he figured out the right way to end it. But the director finds just the right blend of buoyancy and serenity. For all the movie’s pixilated transitions, fisticuffs, and hyper-alert climaxes at the roulette table, there’s a kind of temperamental evenness that’s perfectly in sync with the protagonist. Nolte’s Bob is addicted to gambling, but he has an Alcoholics Anonymous-ish attitude toward the outcome—he doesn’t sweat over what he can’t control. He not only takes betrayals in stride, he counts on other people to act in their own interest. In some ways it frees him up to live in the moment, free of dependencies.
That doesn’t mean he isn’t generous to others—he jokes about himself as a knight in shining armor. At the heart of The Good Thief is his strange, semi-paternal (which means semi-incestuous) relationship with a young Eastern European prostitute named Anne, played by the arresting young Georgian actress Nutsa Kukhianidze. They don’t have much of a physical rapport—even when Kukhianidze, who has the puttyish face of a Leelee Sobieski atop a swan neck and some of the longest limbs in the movies, strips down to her lingerie and taunts him (and some of us, I might add). It’s on a vocal level they connect. Kukhianidze has a low, almost mumbly voice—dry and free of tinkle. It makes sense that Bob’s angel would be sardonically offhand, as glamorous and free of illusions as he is.
Early on, Bob gives Anne money for a hotel and says, “G’night kid”—and then, out of the ether, so perfect that you want to cheer, comes the similarly diffident/romantic voice croak of Leonard Cohen from his most recent CD, Ten New Songs: “The ponies run, the girls are young/ the odds are there to beat. You win a while and then it’s done/ your little winning streak./ And summoned now to deal with your/ invincible defeat,/ You live your life as if it’s real,/ a thousand kisses deep … I’m turning tricks, I’m getting fixed/ I’m back on Boogie Street …”
What Cohen brings to The Good Thief is the same air of beautiful fatalism he brought to Robert Altman’s McCabe & Mrs. Miller (1971) and Atom Egoyan’s Exotica (1994). The music meshes perfectly with Chris Menges’ cinematography, the glamorous dilapidation of Bob’s gambling haunts juxtaposed with the swank of Monte Carlo, where the climactic heist is set. The movie is tightly plotted, but you don’t think about the plot. You focus on the people and the colors and the sounds. Jordan and Menges achieve the sort of orbiting lyricism that Jonathan Demme tried to capture—and, in spite of the best intentions in the world, missed—in last year’s The Truth About Charlie. The faces are the movie’s texture: Nolte, Kukhianidze, Tchéky Karyo as the policeman who wants to bring Bob down more out of love than hate, that old French fox Gérard Darmon as Bob’s longtime henchman, the film director Emir Kusturica as Bob’s electrified security consultant, and Ralph Fiennes in a startling cameo as a sleazy art fence. This is a movie for which you want to give an award to the casting director, Susie Figgis.
The Good Thief also comes at a good time for our relations with the French: It reminds us that our cultures have talked back and forth to each other with more intimacy than we ever have with the British. I prefer the sneaky French affection mixed with derision to the Brits’ more opportunistic distance—and I’d wager the Irish Neil Jordan would agree. The Good Thief is a beautiful rapprochement.