The new based-on-a-true-story drama The Banker inspires a reference to the charming political-fantasy sitcom Parks and Recreation, and its line about something having “the cadence of a joke”. The Banker has the cadence of a movie. It’s 120 minutes long — ah yes, a standard feature-length runtime. Its stars are now best known for their work in franchise fare — OK, they’re taking a break from action movies! And there’s a social conflict at its core, showcasing the destructive capabilities of systemic American racism. Yet there’s something weirdly hollow and dry about this drama. Even if this film had been released as originally scheduled in the 2019 awards season, The Banker would still feel barely like a movie at all.
Anthony Mackie stars as Bernard Garrett, a preternaturally gifted businessman with a desire for buying up apartment buildings to hopefully improve their architectural state and take in a profit. The main problem for Bernard is that he’s a black man living in the American West and Southwest in the 1950s and 1960s, where racial segregation is alive and well, to the point where even his white tenants ostracize him for daring to own and improve these buildings. Eventually, Bernard realizes that the only way to truly achieve his goal isn’t just to own buildings, but to own local banks. He and a brash cohort (Samuel L. Jackson) work together to achieve this goal (moving to Texas, no less, to see it done), with a younger white man (Nicholas Hoult) as their cover to doing business shrewdly.
The first half-hour of The Banker, co-written and directed by George Nolfi, is squarely focused on Garrett, a moderately introverted, but extremely intelligent man who’s unwavering on his desires. Yet once Garrett is forced to team up with Jackson’s character, who owns a nightclub in LA and is revealed to be a lot more knowledgeable about real estate than outward appearances would imply, the focus gradually shifts into making sure that their gambit can work. And that requires them to coach Hoult’s character about the intricacies of real estate and banking over an insanely short period of time. So, in essence, some of The Banker feels like a capitalistic Cyrano de Bergerac, as a male figure succeeds because of someone whispering in his ear. Once Mackie and Jackson end up feeling like co-leads with Hoult, it both becomes a bit clearer, if cynically so, why Apple would have distributed this film, and dramatically distressing.
The original plan for The Banker was that it would premiere at the AFI Fest in November of 2019 before getting an awards-season release in the hopes of disrupting the balance of theatrical and streaming titles jockeying for a gold trophy or two. Then, some troubling allegations about Garrett’s son (who’s shown very briefly in this film, as a young child) were aired in the trades, thus delaying this film’s release. Those allegations, concerning though they may be, seem like an odd reason to push this film back a few months. But then, watching the movie in early spring only heightens a sense that Apple, just beginning to get into the content game with its streaming TV shows and films such as this, was hoping for a Green Book-like wave of praise to lift The Banker through to the Oscars.
The reality of this film is that it’s plodding and dramatically inert, with a strangely leaden set of performances. Jackson is arguably the best of the ensemble, in part because as Joe Morris, he gets to lean into his more loquacious and outrageous side as a performer than in other recent roles. Though he and Mackie (who serves as producer) have both shared screen time in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, this is as far away from Nick Fury as possible, which is fortunately to the film’s credit. Mackie, too, is playing a much different type as Garrett than as the Falcon, but his is a truly shocking performance, specifically due to how hemmed-in and lifeless it is. Anthony Mackie has proven in and out of the MCU that he’s a remarkably gifted actor. Saying so here is just a necessary reminder that this must have been a rare misstep. His charisma’s just not present here.
While it’s unquestionably true that the story of Bernard Garrett is an important, if little-told, strand of the fabric of 20th century America, that does not make it compelling. It’s easy to wonder if another director or writer could have made this more exciting. (Nolfi, whose first notable credit is as screenwriter of the underrated Ocean’s Twelve, has only a couple other big directing credits, including The Adjustment Bureau.) But even when Nolfi tries to punch things up with a crisply edited montage set to upbeat music, the action centers around loan amounts, interest rates, rates of return, and other terribly dull things. None of this is a slam against the life of Bernard Garrett, or the way that his efforts ended up, in a roundabout way, convincing the American Congress to change housing policies to remove discriminatory practices. It just doesn’t make this film interesting.
For a couple weeks, you’ll be able to watch The Banker in theaters before it arrives for streaming on Apple TV+ on March 20. If you do end up paying to see it in theaters, it may seem like a way to harken back to the time in the 1990s when mid-budget period-piece dramas with A-List stars would crop up every few months, typically in the fall as a way to capitalize on awards hopes. But The Banker is like a shell of a movie, with a desperate lack of personality. The ingredients are there, down to the inevitable moment in the end credits when photos of the real people are placed alongside the actors playing them. Yet just as Apple TV+’s original series are lacking the element of dramatic excitement, so too is The Banker.
/Film Rating: 3 out of 10
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