`Confidence' doesn't quite pull it off

Movie Review

April 25, 2003|By Michael Sragow | Michael Sragow,SUN MOVIE CRITIC

James Foley does a skillful job directing Confidence, but mostly he succeeds in turning a sow's ear into a pigskin wallet.

This con-man extravaganza features a clean-cut grifter (Edward Burns) and his "too old to run, too young for San Quentin" gang (Paul Giamatti, Brian Van Holt) pulling a scam on a corrupt banker (Robert Forster) in order to pay off an L.A. kingpin they inadvertently swindled (Dustin Hoffman). Along the way, Burns enlists the services of a fleet-fingered party girl (Rachel Weisz) and finds himself saddled with one of Hoffman's henchmen (Frankie G).

In an episode of Sundance Channel's Anatomy of a Scene focusing on Confidence (and airing tomorrow at 3 p.m., Sunday at 12:30 p.m. and Monday at 12:30 a.m.), Foley compares his film to Burns' character and calls it "a con dressed up in a nice suit." What a succinct critique! Screenwriter Doug Jung labors under the delusion that game-playing alone accounts for the cult following of House of Games and the enduring popularity of The Sting - as if David Mamet's terse, sardonic wordplay in the former and Paul Newman and Robert Redford's amiable chemistry in the latter had less to do with their success.

Maybe that's why, even as trick movies go, Confidence feels surfacey to a fault. A great con movie like The Grifters -vastly preferable to House of Games and The Sting as well as Confidence - is partly a shell game, partly an emotional cauldron. Foley and his cast try to suggest a cauldron in Confidence, but the pot is dry.

The director employs every ruse in his sleight-of-handbook to conjure the illusion that something is at stake. He blends lucid flashbacks and elegant flashforwards. He cuts swiftly between portentous close-ups. He uses L.A.'s vistas and nightscapes to depict Burns' crew as its own bold little enclave in a dog-eat-dog world that spans moneyed mutts and corrupt pedigrees. But the script defeats him. Too clever by, oh, a third, it makes the audience question where the emotional focus should be: Is it Burns' feeling for a murdered gang member or his lust - or love - for Weisz?

What keeps the movie watchable is the smear of personality that Foley and the actors bring to each scene. Burns finally shows he can hold a leading-man position. Giamatti has an odd, saturnine warmth, Weisz a seductive combination of sass and insecurity. Andy Garcia has a grand time playing a seedy special agent, and Hoffman gives an enjoyably over-scaled comic performance as a boss who uses omnisexual awareness to keep male and female underlings off-kilter. They all do their damnedest to make Confidence live up to its title.

Confidence

Starring Edward Burns, Rachel Weisz, Andy Garcia and Dustin Hoffman

Directed by James Foley

Released by Lions Gate

Rated R

Time 98 minutes

Sun Score * * 1/2

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