Pool excellence is not about excellent pool
The Color of Money is directed by Martin Scorsese and is based on the 1984 novel of the same name by Walter Tevis. The film stars Paul Newman, Tom Cruise, Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio, Helen Shaver, and John Turturro. Newman won the Academy Award for Best Actor for his performance.
1961's film adaptation of The Hustler is seen today as a classic, and considering the powerful theme of winning vs. losing that that film has on hand, the world wouldn't be any worse off had nothing about a sequel ever been discussed. But sometime down the road, author Walter Tevis decided to give his 1959 novel a sequel, with a story that takes place twenty years after The Hustler and finds an older Eddie Felson attempting to search for Minnesota Fats and go on a tour with him. Though Tevis created a screenplay to use for a film adaptation, Martin Scorsese wanted to take the film in a new direction, and so, screenwriter Richard Price drafted a script for an entirely different story, though it would have the same name as Tevis' novel.
Instead of a story featuring Minnesota Fats, The Color of Money was turned into a story in which an older Eddie Felson (Newman), now working as a successful liquor salesman, meets a young, hotshot pool player named Vincent Lauria (Cruise). Eddie sees that Vincent is very talented with a pool stick, and so, seeing that Vincent is also working a meager job as a toy store sales clerk, he convinces Vincent and his girlfriend Carmen (Mastrantonio) to go on the road with him, where Vincent can learn to make more money as a pool hustler. The problem is that Vincent is arrogant and a bit immature, and as Eddie tries to teach Vincent how to be a professional, tension grows between the two. In addition, as Eddie watches Vincent get better and better at hustling pool, he rekindles his own passion for the game and starts to consider a comeback.
Martin Scorsese has commented that he took on the directing job for The Color of Money at the insistence of Paul Newman, and because he wanted to make a mainstream film that wouldn't go over budget. At the time The Color of Money was being made, Scorsese had directed Raging Bull, The King of Comedy, and After Hours, none of which made a splash with audiences at the box office. In hindsight, this ambition by Scorsese was a commendable one; a filmmaker of his talents does not deserve to only be known among the indie/niche market crowd, and with a well-known veteran in Paul Newman and an up-and-coming face in Tom Cruise, this was the film that could get Martin Scorsese's name out among the casual movie-going crowd.
Even with a legend like Scorsese in the directing chair, the critical consensus says The Color of Money is vastly inferior to The Hustler. In terms of theme and mood, this is certainly true. But I would argue that, on some other fronts, The Color of Money is better. Yes, The Color of Money has the advantage of 25 years of technological advancement, therefore the privilege of getting a more glossy and colorful look, but unlike The Hustler, The Color of Money subverts any and all forms of boredom.
- The Color of Money has an infectious sense of fun that I think is a nice change-up after the dark tone in The Hustler. Eddie, Vincent, and Lauria are a joy to watch as the three travel from pool hall to pool hall, with scenes in hotels and restaurants making the movie seem like an extended vacation. We say movies are escapism, and escapism is very much true with The Color of Money. Scorsese and cinematographer Michael Ballhaus show off some stylish shots of pool balls being knocked into the pool pockets, and there are several hustling montages throughout the film that grant the movie the opportunity to show off far more pool scenes than what we saw in The Hustler. And with a smooth and upbeat score by composer Robbie Robertson to boot, The Color of Money succeeds as a work of pure entertainment.
- Paul Newman and Tom Cruise deliver strong performances that play off each other quite well. Nothing needs to be said for Newman. Cruise brings a youthful charisma that elevates him to more than just the baby-faced pretty boy that he was back in the 80's: the decade that Cruise was primarily a drama film star. I wouldn't say that this was a film that would guarantee Cruise as one of the biggest stars of the future, but certainly, if I was alive back in 1986 to see this movie in theaters, I probably would have thunk that Cruise had a bright future ahead of himself.
- Where The Color of Money doesn't function too well is in its attempts at developing subplots, all of which fall completely flat. There are various scenes, such as an extended sequence of Vincent and Carmen arguing in a bar, that suggest that the movie is laying the groundwork for something to happen later on, only for absolutely nothing to happen. Heated conversations suggest that Vincent and Carmen are going to break up, but the two turn out just fine when all is said and done. There are also various scenes dedicated to Eddie's love life, but the drama that ensues between Eddie and his lover Janelle (Helen Shaver) is only good for distracting us from the main plot. Basically anything that doesn't involve Eddie and Vincent playing pool means jack squat in the long run, which is why the movie works best when it's trying to be fun.
Whereas The Hustler is a strong work of dramatic depth and worthwhile themes, The Color of Money is a solid work of entertainment, and that's why I find it to be a worthy sequel to The Hustler, even if it has a bit of an inferiority complex. The stylish sequences of pool playing and the performances of Newman and Cruise make The Color of Money an enjoyable film to watch from start to finish, and that should be enough to put the film into the category of underrated Scorsese pictures. Though the film doesn't work as well on a dramatic level, it does something that I think no other film can do: it will really get you in the mood to play pool. That's gotta count for something, right?
Recommend? Yes. Watch The Hustler first, though.
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