''The Grifters'' isn't much of a movie. It leaves you feeling adrift, slightly unsatisfied, but the performances are so good, so interesting, that you're likely to overlook the failings of the script.
Stephen Frears directed. He's the Englishman who directed ''Dangerous Liaisons,'' which is similar in mood to the new film. As was the case with ''Liaisons,'' the characters in ''Grifters'' are all using each other, playing each other like off-key pianos.
There are many grifters (con artists) in ''The Grifters,'' but the film concerns itself with three in particular, one of whom is Lili, a 40-year-old woman who makes her money at race tracks. Actually, it isn't her money. It belongs to the man for whom she works, and when she keeps a few bucks for herself, he puts a lighted cigar to her right hand.
He also threatens to beat her around with a towel packed with oranges, a practice that leaves big bruises, something we all needed to know.
Lili (Anjelica Huston) has a son who is 25 years old. She had him when she was 14, and he was raised as her ''brother.'' The third person in this triangle is Myra, who looks like an all-American beauty queen but has little respect for mother, God and country. She is a pretty young thing who uses her body as she might a credit card.
Myra is involved with Roy (John Cusack), Lili's 25-year-old son. She may or may not be in love with him. She is more likely using him because that has been her history. She wants Roy to become partners with her in a scam plan, but he is reluctant to do so. He is content with the small stuff, like bilking bartenders.
Myra doesn't like Lili, and Lili doesn't like Myra. When Myra takes steps to eliminate Lili from the picture, Lili is on to her.
She isn't on to everything, though. In the end, Lili outsmarts herself, giving the film an ending that doesn't fit the rest of the film, but then we shouldn't be too surprised. It was Frears who gave us one hour of comedy in ''Liaisons,'' then followed that with a second hour of tragedy.
He seems to enjoy that kind of film, that kind of story, one that begins as a comedy then ends as tragedy. He might argue that this is life, but we might argue that it doesn't necessarily make for completely satisfying movies.
The lead performances, however, are exceptionally good. It will be a long time before you will see three such solid portrayals in the same film.
Huston, who isn't really pretty and looks somewhat bizarre as a ** blond, has only to walk in front of the cameras to make us take notice. There is something Garboesque about the woman, something intriguing.
Cusack is equally interesting. He even looks a little like the woman who plays his mother. Annette Bening, so miscast in ''Valmont,'' is beautifully cast here as Myra. She is not the sort you might expect to see involved in a scam operation, but she makes us believe.
''The Grifters,'' which takes place in Los Angeles, opens here today. It is a strangely arranged film, its atmosphere, outer dimension. It mixes laughs with low living. In large part, it is fascinating. As a total film, however, it doesn't quite work.
''The Grifters'' ** A young con man, involved with a young con woman, is visited his con mother, whom he has not seen for eight years.
CAST: Anjelica Huston, John Cusack, Annette Bening, Pat Hingle, Henry Jones.
DIRECTOR: Stephen Frears
RUNNING TIME: 110 minutes.
.` RATING: R (language, violence)