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October 31, 2014

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Confidence
(Reviewed April 28, 2003)
Rating: Not worthy of a star
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Never having made a movie myself, I am normally a little hesitant about laying down rules for those who do make them. But here’s one I don’t see how you could go wrong with. If you are making a movie about scam-artists, you have to make the scam look as plausible to the audience as it does to the victims. Simple, right? Because, see, if you’re wondering all the time you’re watching it what kind of idiot would fall for a lame trick like this, it’s going to be kind of hard for the filmmaker to persuade you — assuming that it is his purpose to persuade you — that his hero is a master criminal, capable of putting one over on not just one ruthless and powerful fellow crook but two of them simultaneously.

Of course there’s always the chance that, having other artistic fish to fry, neither James Foley, who directed Confidence, nor Doug Jung, who wrote it, really cared whether or not we believe in the cleverness and plausibility of their grifter hero, Jake Vig (Ed Burns), and his little band of co-conspirators (Rachel Weisz, Paul Giamatti, and Brian Van Holt with the occasional participation of a couple of bent L.A. cops played by Donal Logue and Luis Guzmán). But if there was any higher purpose in making us feel so little confidence in the confidence game, apart from lending a further irony to the title, I have been unable to discover it. Burns is so obviously a narcissistic poseur that he couldn’t for the life of him adopt the sly, ingratiating quality of the true confidence man.

As Jake, his opening scam, in which he takes $100,000 from a bagman for an L.A. crime boss called Winston "The King" King, (Dustin Hoffman), is the only one that looks even remotely persuasive. When the King proceeds to murder not only the hapless bagman but one of Jake’s pals who injudiciously brags about the job to his bookie, Jake visits the King to tell him it was all a mistake and that, no longer having the money, he will pull another job big enough to pay him back with interest for his loss. The King, having taken a shine to this brash young man — perhaps because he can’t tell by looking into his eyes whether or not he is lying — not only accepts the deal but proposes that Jake and friends, watched over by a goon of his own called Lupus (Franky G.) should mount a hugely lucrative sting operation against a childhood rival (Robert Forster) who now runs a bank.

Mr Hoffman’s acting talent is justly celebrated and, unlike Mr Burns, he really does have the look of a man who makes his living by deceit and ruthlessness. But even he cannot make us believe in the preposterous charade he proposes for the enactment of Jake and his gang — or, for that matter, that the King could have survived for so long as he has as the mastermind of a multifarious collection of criminal businesses with no more sense than to employ someone like Jake in such an enterprise. Even the little preliminary scam Jake runs in a jewelry shop to test Miss Weisz’s potential as a griftress requires, to my eyes, a mark of truly heroic gullibility in order to succeed.

That this bunch of lightweights and amateurs should then proceed to inveigle Forster’s vice president for corporate loans (John Carroll Lynch), first into approving a spectacularly ill-advised loan to a fictitious high-tech company and then into accepting a bribe for actual criminal activity on their behalf — a bribe that he could hardly hope would go undetected — is so improbable as to produce laughter. Moreover, anyone who has been keeping up with recent trends in heist movies will spot what’s coming in the dénouement from the first appearance of Andy Garcia as a U.S. federal agent determined to catch his long-time nemesis, Jake, in the act of pulling off his crime. At least the advantage of cliché is that it becomes somewhat believable through sheer repetition.

As if all that were not enough to be wrong with the picture, it also belongs to the genre that I call prison fantasy — that is, it portrays the criminals as getting away with their crime. Remember that One Big Score that used always to go wrong in the old-fashioned noir films? Well, now it always goes right. That’s the price we pay in aesthetic quality for the abolition of the Hays Code.

An interesting sidelight has to do with the title. "Confidence. It’s always confidence," says Jake to the admiring bent coppers of the first job, mentioned above. I wondered if this was deliberate — perhaps an attempt to explain how Jake is a new kind of confidence man, not one who inspires but one who has confidence in himself — or a simple misunderstanding of the term in the expressions "confidence man" or "confidence trick." Normally, of course, it means that the man, or the trick, depends on deceiving us and so gaining our confidence, our trust, that we are not (as in fact we are) being deceived. But Jake appears to be using the word in its more developed sense of something close to chutzpah. It is his own confidence that is in question, and which (he supposes) enables him to pull off the most audacious robberies, not that of the marks for whom he appears to have nothing but contempt. And yet, if that is so, how is he to gain their confidence? This is the very heart of the film’s failure.




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