It’s hard to pinpoint exactly why The Banker –“inspired” by a true story and shot in Atlanta — feels so uninvolving. Opening today (March 6) at the Plaza Theatre and Landmark Midtown Art Cinema, it’s the tale of an ambitious young black man named Bernard Garrett (Anthony Mackie), who’s determined, despite his race, the time and place (1950s Texas), to become a real estate wheeler-dealer.
First, though, he moves to a relatively more enlightened Los Angeles, accompanied by wife Eunice (Nia Long), who’s sketched as pliant but sparky when she needs to be. Working at the terribly named Plantation Club, Eunice cultivates a potential co-investor in Joe Morris (Samuel L. Jackson). But on introducing her husband to Morris, it’s distrust at first sight. Sneering at the older man’s drinking and smoking, Garrett turns away, sniffing at his wife that “he’s a degenerate.”
It’s the sort of line that makes you know they’ll soon be partners in buying up L.A. buildings. But to do so, in 1954, requires a little trickery. Particularly when the partners decide they want to purchase income-producing properties in all-white neighborhoods. Luck arrives in the form of a fellow named Barker (Colm Meaney), who sees no problem being the white front man for the other two. He’s had his own experience with prejudice: “I’m a ‘dirty Irishman,’ but they do business with me because I make money.”
As Garrett and Morris start to make money and expand their West Coast holdings, complications cause them to ally themselves with another white man, young blue-collar worker Matt Steiner (Nicholas Hoult). A central, predictable, but still charming section of the plot sees Steiner becoming an Eliza Doolittle to dual Henry Higginses. Morris and Garrett give him a crash course in property investment, golf and table manners so he can infiltrate the white country-club set whose buildings they want to buy.
Though L.A. is less oppressive than the South, Garrett has notable racist encounters with two women (played by Atlanta actors Jill Jane Clements and Rhoda Griffis). But for a true lesson in the racism of the times, the characters must move back to Texas and encounter a bigot in male form, Robert Florance Jr. (Scott Johnson). He’s related to the president of the bank that Garrett and Morris secretly buy, with Steiner again acting as their Caucasian surrogate. Florance smells something fishy.
To sustain their ruse, and in order to keep an eye on the inexperienced Steiner, Eunice takes a housekeeping job at the bank. At times, Garrett and Morris lurk around the edges in the guise of a limo driver and janitor. These details suggest The Banker is about to cut loose with some surreal comedy, but like much of the movie, the scenes play matter-of-factly and a little flat.
When The Banker’s characters’ talk of investment, percentages and mathematical equations, it stops the movie dead. Repeatedly. You’ll hear dialogue along the lines of “the multiplicative inverse of the 10 multiple” or “a 25 percent premium on a 10.5 percent cap rate.” Poetry, it isn’t. Director George Nolfi, working from a script credited to five writers, hasn’t found a way to make the arcane information coherent and dramatic, as was achieved, for instance, in The Big Short. Too often, The Banker plays like an industrial film made primarily for property and tax attorneys, or ambitious Realtors-in-training.
A bigger problem comes from the actors’ performances and approach. Two of the three leads are having a good time. Jackson as the hard-drinking, pleasure-loving Morris treats the film, as does his character, as a chance to have fun and make some money. And Hoult delivers boyish charm as the eager Steiner, whose willingness to learn is counterbalanced by the risk of getting in over his head.
From start to finish, unfortunately, Mackie tends to play Garrett as emotionally buttoned-up as the nice suits he wears. When Morris first meets Garrett, he offers a potent cocktail, hoping it will “blow that stick out of his ass.” That never happens, and the central character remains stiff — more like an undertaker than a savvy businessman.
The final, crucial flaw of The Banker is that, for all the time we spend with these characters, we never learn anything idiosyncratic or particularly interesting about them as people. They’re figures in an earnest pageant that has nothing much more to tell us than that the days of Jim Crow were bad. In the end, the movie can feel as impersonal as an online money transaction.