The Banker proves too safe an investment for Apple TV+ [Review]

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Anthony Mackie, left, and Samuel L. Jackson star in The Banker, out now on Apple TV+.
Anthony Mackie, left, and Samuel L. Jackson star in The Banker.
Photo: Apple TV+

Mired in scandal and plagued by delays, the debut fiction film purchased by Apple TV+ is finally here to stream, just in time for everyone in America to be trapped with little else but their TVs.

The Banker, starring Anthony Mackie and Samuel L. Jackson, likely won’t top many best-of lists this year. It’s too slight, though neither does it embarrass itself in the telling of a compelling true story about overcoming discrimination in a racist world.

The Banker review

Director George Nolfi‘s film centers on real-life entrepreneur Bernard Garrett (played by Mackie, who also produced), who studied finance in secret growing up in Texas in the 1940s. By the time we meet him in the early ’60s, he’s ready to conquer the Los Angeles real estate market. His wife Eunice (Nia Long) suggests getting help from jazz club owner Joe Morris (Jackson), but Garrett hates everything about him. Morris is loud, lewd, a drinker, a womanizer, a smoker, and he never keeps any of his thoughts to himself. In short, he’s everything Garrett is not.

Garrett makes a handshake deal to buy property from Irish landlord Patrick Barker (Colm Meaney), who empathizes with the discrimination Garrett faces in white LA as someone who’s seen his fair share. When Barker passes, his wife is much less interested in helping a black investor, and goes so far as to hire Garrett’s accountant out from under him to ensure she’s able to buy back her husband’s property. The situation so enervates him that he resolves not just to embarrass the accountant who hung him out to dry, but buys the Banker Building where his office sits. The only person with enough capital to help him do it? Joe Morris.

Morris knows they’ll never be able to conduct business in LA without a front, so they hit on an idea. Garrett remembers the one white face in LA that was able to look him in the eye. Matt Steiner (Nicholas Hoult) is an uneducated friend of Garrett’s cousin, but he’s willing to put in a hard day’s work. Would he be willing to learn the ins and outs of commercial real estate (to say nothing of every bigwig’s favorite sport: golf) in order to be the front for their business operation? Sure, he would. And besides, how hard could it be to learn everything there is to know about banking and real estate in a few weeks?

Show don’t tell

Not everyone knows how to make it so, but dialogue itself can be cinematic. Counter-intuitive, for sure, but history’s full of rule-proving exceptions. For instance, Jean Eustache’s landmark 1973 film The Mother & the Whore, Richard Linklater’s Before trilogy, Ted Fendt’s Classical Period. Political cinema is constantly at war with how much or how little to show of the business of revolution. Too much incident or spectacle and you’re stupefying the audience, placating them rather than confronting or challenging them.

This was never a problem that a director like George Nolfi was going to solve. Nolfi has a couple of impressive writing credits (Ocean’s Twelve, The Bourne Ultimatum), but his directorial credits are less auspicious. The Adjustment Bureau, which he also wrote, is handsomely mounted but too silly to ever gather momentum. It’s also, as all of his films are, unduly obsessed with costuming that is neither as inspired or interesting as he imagines. The plot actually hinges on Matt Damon wearing a fedora.

Nolfi’s truly dreadful Bruce Lee biopic Birth of the Dragon shoves Lee into the background to focus on the romance between a generic white boy and the Chinese waitress he has a crush on. The Banker is his best movie by a walk, but the bar couldn’t have been much lower.

A political film

This is a political film, even if it spends so much of the runtime on the numbers. The best and worst parts of The Banker involve recitations of figures and huge algebraic conversions done on the fly. When the film gets into a rhythm, its numbers game is thrilling stuff. But too frequently, the film kicks up its heels to watch Hoult recite math to sound smart.

The movie can’t quite take anyone’s intelligence for granted and underlines its points too much. Nolfi never seems truly plugged into the math, anyway. He’s very, very fixated on shooting the parts of LA and Texas that still look antique enough to pass for the ’60s, as well as the antique costumes and mannerisms. Jackson, for instance, is almost never seen without a cigarette in his hand. Two or three times it looks like attention to detail. By the 12th freshly lit cigarette, it’s a little ridiculous.

Bankin’ on it

Samuel L. Jackson & Anthony Mackie in The Banker
Samuel L. Jackson and Anthony Mackie star in the first fiction feature released by Apple TV+.
Photo: Apple TV+

That’s not to say Jackson isn’t great. He is. In fact, his performance makes everyone else seem stiff and unmotivated. He’s always been a livewire performance but Mackie can’t really have fun with the buttoned-up Garrett. Nor do Long, Hoult or Meaney do much heavy lifting. Only Michael Harney as Melvin Belli seems to be on the same page as Jackson.

The script around the math is Biopic 101, so that leaves it to the actors to make it interesting, and Jackson’s the only one who succeeds every time. For an idea what this film could have looked like if it had given into the milieu of backroom finance, check out Federico Veiroj’s The Moneychanger when it opens later this year.

Why the delayed release for The Banker?

The Banker was supposed to premier much earlier in theaters, but Bernard Garrett Jr., the film’s producer and the son of the real-life subject of the movie, was credibly accused of sexual assault by his half-sisters. The film was shelved until the public forgot about the news (and his name got scrubbed from the credits).

The Banker tells an important story, and discrimination remains an important subject for films to discuss, but the conversation around abuse should probably be just as loud.

Watch on: Apple TV+

Scout Tafoya is a film and TV critic, director and creator of the long-running video essay series The Unloved for RogerEbert.com. He has written for The Village Voice, Film Comment, The Los Angeles Review of Books and Nylon Magazine. He is the director of 25 feature films, and the author of more than 300 video essays, which can be found at Patreon.com/honorszombie.