Timing is everything

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Period dramedy ‘The Banker’ arrives too late for awards, perfect moment for audiences

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If “The Banker” had come out when it was supposed to, director George Nolfi’s film would have been the talk of the town.

A spiritual successor to the Academy Award winning “Green Book,” it was a film with a lot going for it: a pair of talented African American actors including Oscar nominee Samuel L. Jackson, a wellcrafted screenplay based on true events and a brand new studio in tech giant Apple looking to make a splash on the big screen.

The film was set to debut at festivals and theaters during the heart of awards season last November before heading to the recently launched AppleTV+ streaming service, but was pulled at the last minute after sexual abuse allegations against the son of one of the subjects of the film — Bernard Garrett, Jr. — who also happened to be among the film’s producers.

With audiences staying home to prevent the spread of the novel coronavirus, “The Banker” has since limped into theaters earlier this month and began streaming on Apple Friday to little fanfare.

Viewers by and large aren’t aware of the fact that one of 2020’s best films — on the big screen two weeks ago — can be seen in the privacy of their homes today on a free trial or $4.99 monthly subscription to the new service, much more cost-efficient than the $19.99 price tag studios have place on digital rentals of similarly shuttered films like “The Invisible Man” or “The Hunt.”

“The Banker” tells the story of two of the first African American bankers in the United States — Bernard Garrett and Joe Morris — who first become significant Los Angeles real estate owners before purchasing a small Texas bank. Unable to purchase the property on their own due to the political and cultural climate of the 1960s, Bernard and Joe hire a white man, Matt Steiner, to front their investments.

The film’s success lies largely with the dynamic chemistry between its principal cast, with Anthony Mackie giving some of the best work of his career since 2008’s “The Hurt Locker” as financial whiz Bernard. His calm, almost stoic demeanor provides the necessary gravitas to give audiences faith in his sense of purpose and the way Mackie shows just enough of Bernard’s inner anger reflects the drive within the character.

It’s in perfect balance with Jackson’s free-flowing, charismatic turn as Joe, a verbose, wily businessman who’s just as eager to make a profit but follows his gut more than his brain and isn’t afraid to speak his mind.

On the page, the characters of Bernard and Joe are rather simplistic cutouts of real people with little complexity aside from their drive to succeed and their apprehension about racial inequalities in business. But what makes “The Banker” a worth-while watch is how Mackie and Jackson are able to elevate the material with their on-screen chemistry, which feels natural and genuine.

Their characters’ different approaches to problems at hand makes for simple, yet effective storytelling and provides for many of the film’s most entertaining moments.

It’s especially effective in the movie’s engaging first hour, where Bernard and Joe begin working together and bring a willing, yet clueless Matt on board as the face of their partnership. Hoult is adept at playing Matt as naïve rather than the fool and it helps make scenes where Joe teaches him golf or Bernard explaining complex algebra feel fun and not demeaning.

Nolfi’s film often struggles to make clear the financial transactions involved, whipping audiences through technically heavy jargon like “capitalization rates,” but there’s a lot of flash and pizzazz to the montage style in which Nolfi wraps and compartmentalizes this information for viewers.

“The Banker” moves along crisply and the direction isn’t particularly noticeable aside from the occasional montage, but Nolfi and his team of screenwriters — five are credited here — could have easily trimmed the film by 10-15 minutes without losing much and maintained the momentum of the first hour.

A potential awards season contender last year, there’s frankly no real chance for “The Banker” to be up for accolades given its middling release and the likelihood that enough films will still be released theatrically in 2020 to boot Apple’s debut feature from the shortlist of contenders.

The ease of access to AppleTV+, combined with strong work from Mackie and Jackson, make “The Banker” a welcome distraction in a world of uncertainty and something worth seeking out at home.

Matt Ward is a programmer for the Hill Country Film Festival and local film critic, who is also an official Rotten Tomatoes reviewer.

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