Among the many great movies about public corruption, one of our favorites is “The Big Easy.” Released in 1987, it’s set in New Orleans — the most unique (and least American) of all American cities. We were living in New Orleans when the movie came out, and our work involved compliance. So the film grabbed our interest as both entertainment and education.
“Half of Louisiana is under water and the other half is under indictment,” former U.S. Representative from Louisiana, Billy Tauzin, once said. He’s quoted in a recent Reuters story that also reports that since 2001, 213 officials and private individuals have been indicted in the state for corruption, and nearly all have been convicted. That’s a big change from our time there. In the mid-1980s, we often talked with the FBI agent who’d been assigned to investigate political corruption in New Orleans and a couple of nearby parishes. The enormous amount of graft and the local tolerance of it made his task impossible. He looked exhausted and said the job had burned him out after a couple of completely unfruitful years.
Back in “The Big Easy,” the characters are wonderfully realistic and offbeat. Dennis Quaid and Ellen Barkin are the heroes — Barkin as a naive, hard-charging, self-righteous prosecutor from out of town, and Quaid as a local go-with-the-flow cop who becomes Barkin’s reluctant helper. The large cast — including Ned Beatty and John Goodman — would be over the top if they weren’t playing personalities from NOLA. Roger Ebert said in his August 1987 review, “All of these characters inhabit the most convincing portrait of New Orleans I’ve ever seen. The authentic local Cajun music on the soundtrack and the instinctive feel for the streets and alleys, the lives and the ways of doing business, the accents and the evasions, make the city itself a participant in what happens.”
Our favorite character in the movie (and Ebert’s too) is Lamar Parmentel, played by the late Charles Ludlam. He’s a brilliant and bent defense lawyer with seersucker suits, wide-brim hats, a shrill voice and outrageous New Orleans elocution. Ebert called him “a cross between Truman Capote and F. Lee Bailey.”
Great movies deal honestly with serious themes. “The Big Easy” shows lives ruined by public corruption and hints at other problems it causes — poverty, high crime rates, a dysfunctional education system, sub-par health care, local courts that people don’t trust, city services that don’t serve, and a constant brain drain.
So in the category of Sleaze in the Cinema, we give “The Big Easy” our top rating — 5 Red Flags.