Existential malaise is the theme of this quiet drama from newcomer Henry Butash, who cut his teeth in postproduction on two films by Terrence Malick – Song to Song and Knight of Cups. Evidence of this résumé is found all over the camerawork, which floats around its subjects like The Tree of Life, capturing their movements with a serene yet realist quality.
The subjects are Jane (Jessica Hecht) and Arthur (Mike Faist), two lonely souls who meet in a sprawling Atlantic City casino. Jane eyes the young man at a roulette table, having meandered across the floor in an almost trance-like state. This sequence is entirely non-verbal, allowing us to feel Jane’s reverie as she immerses herself in the ambience of ringing slot machines and murmuring croupiers.
Jane has been numbed by her husband’s infidelity, yet her pain goes deeper than that. She’s rudderless, unfulfilled. What has brought her to this point? Where will it lead? Arthur may be 20 years her junior, but he asks himself similar questions. Indeed, his disillusionment is even more hopeless than hers. A cynic would dismiss all of this as a midlife crisis and a toyboy fling, but Jane and Arthur’s chemistry is grounded in shared despondency rather than just sexual attraction.
The ‘will they/won’t they’ appeal of their relationship is bolstered by Hect and Faist’s performances, which are quietly accomplished. There’s a slight eccentricity to Arthur. He’s confident, talkative and unbothered by her age, but he is far from some brash ladykiller. Rather, he has a maturity beyond his years. Hect, despite all of the gloomy vibes, brings an almost Xanax-like calmness to Jane, who is coy, girlish and perhaps mild to a fault.
In fact, ‘mild to a fault’ would be an appropriate descriptor for The Atlantic City Story, which is named like some screwball comedy from the 1940s. It never quite comes together, neither as a romance nor as a statement on the human condition. There’s some crescendo between the lovers, but there’s no peak. So when the violins come out in full force during the closing act, it’s all rather dour and melodramatic.