Director : James Foley
Screenplay : Doug Jung
MPAA Rating : R
Year of Release : 2003
Stars : Edward Burns (Jake Vig), Rachel Weisz (Lily), Andy Garcia (Agent Gunther Butan), Dustin Hoffman (The King), Paul Giamatti (Gordo), Donal Logue (Officer Whitworth), Luis Guzmán (Officer Manzano), Brian Van Holt (Miles), Franky G. (Lupus), Morris Chestnut (Travis)
“So, I’m dead,” is the opening line of voice-over narration in the neo-noir crime twister Confidence. It is spoken by a slick con artist named Jake Vig (Edward Burns) who is lying in a pool of his own blood. It’s a catchy opening, but dead narrators are nothing new, and that essentially sums up everything about the film itself: catchy, but not quite catchy enough to cover over the fact that we’ve seen all this done before.
Neatly written by first-time scribe and recent NYU graduate Doug Jung, Confidence plays its hand with the polished precision of a well-oiled machine; nothing is out of place and everything clicks together smoothly. But, somewhere in all those crosses and double-crosses, Jung forgot to give his story spirit. Clearly aping the “whole world is a con” credo from David Mamet and the “aren’t criminals cool” style of Quentin Tarantino, Jung nails the finer points, but misses the bigger picture: Con games and well-dressed criminals are intriguing, but they aren’t truly moving until something genuinely human is at stake. You never get the sense that anyone’s life or humanity is on the line in Confidence, merely their ego.
The story, which is told in flashback by Vig while a would-be killer of unknown origin (Morris Chestnut) holds a gun to the back of his head, involves an elaborate grift involving the theft of $5 million from a banker with Mafia ties (Robert Forester). Vig is the ringleader. His trusted crew includes Gordo (Paul Giamatti) and Miles (Brian Van Holt), as well as a newcomer, a “skirt” named Lili (Rachel Weisz) who turns out to be as good a con artist as she is a pickpocket. The stakes of the game are a bit higher this time because the grift is being done for a jittery Los Angeles mobster named The King (Dustin Hoffman) as repayment for Vig and his crew having accidentally stolen from him in an earlier grift. Also involved in the shenanigans are a couple of crooked L.A. cops (Donal Logue and Luis Guzmán) and a federal agent (Andy Garcia) who has a longstanding beef with Vig.
Like any good story about grifting, much of the film’s energy is expending on explaining the intricacies of the game—all the important words like “mark” and “shill” are employed with the same vigor as the colorful four-letter varieties and the carefully phrased insights offered by Vig into the word of con artistry (not surprisingly, one of the most important is a chess analogy). Of course, we know that we’re not seeing everything because most of the characters have hidden agendas that will only be revealed in time. Right off the bat it is suggested that Lili will betray Vig and the others as all good femme fatales do, but can we be sure she’s not playing another hand?
Director James Foley, who showed a real skill in developing complicated characters in his 1992 adaptation of Mamet’s Glengarry Glen Ross, brings the same visual acuity to Confidence (he’s working with the same cinematographer, Juan Ruiz Anchía), but he seems to have become so engrossed in his use of garish red, blue, and green lighting that he overlooked the broadness of his actors’ performances. While Edward Burns generally underplays Vig in an attempt to accentuate his coolness under pressure, virtually everyone else chews the scenery like it’s going out of style, most notably Hoffman as the bizarre, hyper, is-he-or-isn’t-he-gay mobster and Garcia as the grizzled, cigar-chomping federal agent who religiously wears a tie Vig sent him to remind him of his uncatchability. Foley and production designer Bill Arnold (Punch-Drunk Love) get the mis-en-scéne just right, setting each scene in the kind of skanky alleyway, barroom, or strip club that makes the actors’ high-price suits look all the shinier (with the exception of Hoffman’s character, who dresses like a slob and intones, “Sometimes, style can kill you”).
In the end, though, it all comes down to very little. We get the expected twists and turns, and if you don’t pay too much attention, you might be a bit surprised by the outcome. But, even if you’re surprised, it doesn’t carry much punch because it really doesn’t matter who ends up getting grifted, who ends up on top, and who the actual “mark” turns out to be. As a carefully controlled execution of been-there-done-that neo-noir postmodernism, Confidence hits on all cylinders, but you can’t help but notice its essential soullessness.
Copyright © 2003 James Kendrick