Stop us if you think you’ve heard this one before: Alex Stillman (Bret Harrison) is a college kid who shows a real talent for poker. He is discovered by legendary player Tommy Vinson (Burt Reynolds) who at the insistence of his wife (Maria Mason) retired from the game 20 years earlier but sees a younger version of himself in Alex and offers to train him for some major tournaments. Although their meeting of minds seems initially promising the whole thing falls apart when Alex starts a brief fling with a girl (Shannon Elizabeth) he later finds out is a prostitute Tommy paid off to keep the kid happy. The two are eventually reunited in a different way when Tommy decides to make a comeback on his own and ends up competing against his protégée in a televised tournament worth $8 million to the eventual winner. Although Reynolds has top billing on the end credits marketing materials list Bret Harrison in first position above Burt in the hope that the bland TV star (Reaper Grounded For Life etc.) can draw his young fans. NO one is likely to turn out for this mis-guided Color of Money wannabe. That 1986 film had a different game (pool) and an identical plotline but it also had Tom Cruise Paul Newman in an Oscar winning role and direction by Martin Scorsese. Here you have Reynolds and Harrison sleepwalking through the banal dialogue and pedestrian situations. Reynolds’ toupee shows more interest than he does! And Harrison is thoroughly unconvincing as a guy we are meant to believe can jump right from college to the very top of the poker world in no time flat. Elizabeth actually makes the strongest impression in the film but she has an underwritten part and three scenes. Mason has the thankless role of Reynolds’ long-suffering wife while Charles Durning and Jennifer Tilly can probably find most of their almost non-existent roles on a cutting room floor somewhere. Director Gil Cates Jr. does no favors for his own screenplay (co-written with Mark Weinstock) with static unimaginative shots and coverage of the numerous poker games so sloppy that he makes Lucky You look like a masterpiece. The performances all clearly suffer from his by-the-numbers direction as well. To be fair it is extremely difficult to make card games compelling to watch on screen but most of his shots look like he just set the camera up in one position called ‘Action’ and went out for a smoke. He should have rented Steve McQueen’s 1965 poker classic The Cincinnati Kid to see how a real director (Norman Jewison) could make this stuff visually interesting. Cates is the son of the veteran producer who runs the Oscar show. On the basis of Deal at least Cates Sr. won’t have to worry about finding seats for his son at next year’s ceremony.
Let's hear it for the old guy who in this movie comes off sexier than his buff young accomplice (Dermot Mulroney). OK the old guy happens to be the gracefully aging icon Paul Newman -- as a feisty heistmeister who dodges a long prison sentence and then teams up with his equally conniving rest-home nurse (Linda Fiorentino) on a bank job gone wrong. "Where the Money Is" is breezy suspenseful and as much a love story as anything else -- if you call mentoring a new life in crime a kind of love. The mission-improbable caper is no more or less entertaining than a "Rockford Files" rerun but the film's swerving joyride takes its real thrills from the great escape that Fiorentino's Bonnie Parker makes from a dead-end life in the married lane.
Newman still hasn't lost it and as Henry Manning he doesn't miss any nuances in the edgy balance between streetwise wariness and amiable rapport with his sultry new colleague. The steam-powered Fiorentino has forged her career by making danger look casual and this is her most alluring work since "The Last Seduction" added another zero to her salary. Her chemistry with Newman a flirty twist on the idea of honor among thieves is really what makes this movie worth seeing. Mulroney is serviceable as the dim but lovable hubby a supporting role that's more foil than fully etched character.
We can all thank director Marek Kanievska for deciding not to have the May-December duo end up in the sack and leaving them simply professional cohorts. The director's admirable sense of comic timing works all the better by not letting the laughs get in the way of his leads' exploration of their characters -- although there's no denying the limits of this frothy genre. Perhaps Kanievska's greatest feat here is allowing Newman to retain his dignity in close-up.