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Movie Review : Newman Chalks One Up In 'The Color Of Money'

October 17, 1986|SHEILA BENSON | Times Film Critic

"Pool excellence is not about excellent pool," says Paul Newman's Fast Eddie Felson, as he hustles a possible pool-playing prodigy. "You gotta be a student of human moves."

Ah, but movie excellence is about excellence in movies and about being a student of human moves. And the human heart. It's about longevity, endurance, pain, mystery and a sense of when to let it all out and when to hold a little back. And, if after his more than 45 films Paul Newman isn't about movie excellence, then who in American movies is?

In "The Color of Money" (citywide), Martin Scorsese brings all Newman's excellence back home with a crack as resounding as a 9-ball thunder break. Pitting Fast Eddie against Vince Lauria (Tom Cruise), a strutting, unbeatable natural who does paradiddles with his stick--his style is a sort of Kung Fu Cue--Scorsese goes beyond the game of pool and across the matter of generations, into a question of character and redemption, deception and clarity.

The result--a bold, exhilarating, nearly perfect dramatic comedy--belongs in the six-pack of Great Paul Newman Performances, and it won't disappoint Tom Cruise fans, either. "The Color of Money" may lack the dead-ahead purity of "The Hustler," and "Money's" pivotal scene--the hustler hustled--may not come to us with the life-changing thunderclap that it does to Eddie. But the film is quick, keen, astonishing-looking and full of the joys and the juices of acting and movie making.

Today's Fast Eddie Felson, at the wheel of his block-long Cadillac, is the liquor salesman most likely to have a lady at every bar with a faint smile and the taste of sippin' whiskey on her lips. Currently, blond bar owner Helen Shaver ("Desert Hearts") seems to have the inside track--as much as any woman can. It takes a lot to get Eddie's undivided attention.

But his head snaps around in a pool hall/bar one night, as he watches Carmen, (Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio) a tough young beauty, managing Vince, a certified wacko-genius of pool. Eddie has long since declared himself out of the game, but he keeps his hand in by bankrolling young players--for 60% of their winnings. Smelling something (money), the old lion prowls over to take a close look at the young cub.

From this point on, novelist Richard Price's racy, razor-sharp screenplay sets a booby trap for every one of our expectations. (It was loosely based on the novel by Walter Tevis.) Old pro, young protege? Only after a fashion. Old pro, young triangle? Don't bet on it. Old pro, out to prove himself? Not for the reasons you'd think.

Eddie takes Vince on with an eye to keeping his talent under wraps until a national tournament, then cleaning up. So, in the film's most infectious section, the three set out on the road, ostensibly to turn loosey-goosey Vince into a contender. It is not an enviable job. The tension around this pair-and-a-spare is as thick as ozone: the two men's approaches to the game could hardly be more different; Carmen can't resist at least one pass at Eddie; and if you tell Vince to do anything he does just the opposite.

And all the while, Scorsese, no mean student of human moves himself, is on the prowl. With his electrifying cameraman Michael Ballhaus (whose work on "After Hours" heightened the feeling of a taut, anything-can-happen city), the director turns the game of pool into sleek surreal art. With the volume up full force, he stages one of Vince's matches to Warren Zevon's "Werewolves of London," and for another, pulls our vantage point above and down a line of pool tables in an incredible rolling shot, the camera apparently suspended somewhere near the ceiling.

Then, as we're approaching a showdown between the two men, probably far too cliched for the director's sensibility, Scorsese breaks the momentum, scattering his three principals and shifting his focus to Eddie's jolting crisis of conscience.

It's not impossible, just unsettling and imperfectly set up. This Eddie's motto is, "Money won is twice as sweet as money earned." Suddenly, our raffish anti-hero turns soul-sick and must find his almost entirely lost honor. With one shot, Newman's body diving into an aquamarine swimming pool (cleansing? revivifying?), the story turns . . . and falters slightly.

(At the final tournament, Scorsese even gives us a visual pun, as though to heighten his pool/pool metaphor: an unforgettable overhead shot down at 40 pool tables, each of them looking like a little glowing swimming pool, ready for its player to dive in. It's a memorable second, made especially poignant by the death this week of its creator, Boris Leven, the superlative production designer.)

This hesitation as the film comes across the finish line may not bother many people. There is energy and inventiveness enough here to stamp it as one of the year's most interesting films. Although it's virtually impossible to look at anyone else when Newman commands a scene, and although each man is exploring his character at completely different depths, Cruise is at least willing to extend himself; he gives the sense of a young actor who is working to grow. Add the edgy, indolent Mastrantonio and you have an electrifying unholy trio. The picture is, however, in the pocket of the old pro, who is still, in Fast Eddie's own words, some piece of work.

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