Movies about con artists always have an inherent appeal for me. Whether it be the comedic cons of Dirty Rotten Scoundrels and Heartbreakers or the darker, more dangerous cons of The Grifters or David Mamet’s brilliant House of Games, I am usually hooked. If there’s a problem with con artist movies, it’s that we now essentially know many of them will try to fool the audience. So when the new film Confidence opened with a voiceover in which the lead character says, “Okay, so I’m dead…” I somehow knew there was more to the story.
Those words are spoken by Jake Vig (Edward Burns) just before he explains the essential components of a major con. Of course you need the victim (or the “mark”), because that’s the person with the money. There’s also the “shill” - essentially a background actor who adds believability to the con by appearing to be an innocent witness and the "inside man" who is capable of getting crucial information. The grifter is the one who actually perpetrates the con. Jake works with a loyal team of grifters, shills, and inside men, including Miles (Brian Van Holt) and Gordo (Paul Giamatti), who has a fear of public restrooms. Jake also has two corrupt LA cops (Donal Logue and Luis Guzman) on his payroll; they bend rules for him in exchange for a cut of the cash.
After one particularly bountiful scam, Jake and crew discover that their mark was carrying cash belonging to a notorious underground lowlife known as “the King” (Dustin Hoffman). The King finds out what has happened and kills one of Jake’s partners in retaliation. In an attempt to work everything out, Jake visits the King at the strip club he runs in a seedy neighborhood. The King wants his money back; Jake refuses to do that since one of his men was killed. They strike a deal in which Jake will rip off the person of the King’s choosing. That person turns out to be a bank owner/mob money launderer named Morgan Price (Robert Forster). Jake and his team will rip the guy off for $5 million, which will be split between both sides. Following this, the slate between Jake and the King will be wiped clean.
In order to accomplish the scam, two new members must come aboard the team. Lupus (Franky G) is one of the King’s men, sent along to make sure Jake doesn’t try to double-cross him. Lily (Rachel Weisz) is a beautiful pickpocket Jake meets when, naturally, she picks his pocket. To reach Price, they start lower on the totem pole, roping a mid-level V.P. into thinking they are business people on the verge of a major product development. Lily flirts with the guy, then encourages him to approve a sizable loan for a project that doesn’t really exist. Meanwhile, a federal agent (Andy Garcia) shows up to track Jake. He’s been doing so for a long time and is determined to catch his prey once and for all. It doesn’t take long for him to put the squeeze on the corrupt cops, demanding that they set Jake up for a fall.
Confidence is one of the smarter movies when it comes to cons. The film actually explains some of the elements necessary to successfully pull one off, so it has a natural authenticity. With about 30 minutes left to go, I kind of figured out that there was a con within a con; in other words, I knew the story was trying to trick me into thinking something that wasn’t true. Even though I guessed correctly, I still enjoyed seeing how the con played itself out. And - more pleasingly - there are some additional elements of the con that I didn’t forsee. Call them ripple effects; it was as much about who Jake conned as how he did it. The end result proves to be very satisfying, as I felt I had seen a legitimate, believable con played out from start to finish.
Because there are so many characters and so many twists and turns, the movie sometimes feels pretty crowded. There’s a lot going on for a film that runs only 98 minutes. Despite moments of feeling stuffed, Confidence makes sure that none of the characters gets lost. Each one is nicely developed, with little details that add depth. For example, I love the fact that the King has Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder. On the surface, he seems like a harmless guy, bouncing off the walls with his inability to focus on anything for more than a few seconds. You can’t possibly imagine how such an easily distractible man could focus on anyone long enough to be dangerous. Then his temper lets loose and you realize the King harbors a lot of inner rage that he isn’t afraid to direct at those who cross him. A role like this requires a great actor, and Dustin Hoffman is equal to the challenge. This is one of his best performances.
The rest of the cast does well, too. The always reliable Paul Giamatti brings some humor to the story, as do Logue and Guzman. Edward Burns is the center of the film, the guy who runs the show. Burns has impressed me as a writer/director, and he is developing a strong resume as an actor as well. It would have been easy for him to capitalize on romantic comedies after gaining recognition in The Brothers McMullen and She’s the One, but Burns has challenged himself by taking on tougher, more hard-edged roles in movies like Ash Wednesday and No Looking Back. I think he is well cast as a con artist for two reasons. One, he projects a natural sense of intelligence on-screen; he seems like the kind of guy who could get a read on things pretty quickly. Secondly, Burns knows how to rough up his “nice” persona. He comes off like your buddy down the street you shoot hoops and drink beer with, yet he is capable of revealing darker layers under the everyman façade. This is really a breakout role for the actor, as it allows him to use the light side and the dark side simultaneously - something his fans haven’t had the chance to really see him do yet.
Confidence was directed by James Foley (Glengarry Glen Ross), who keeps the pace moving and the plot twisting. Because movies about con artists have become more frequent in recent years, there is a sense of déjà vu you occasionally get from the material. Foley tries to fight that by shooting the film with different imaginative camera and editing techniques. It’s the actors who ultimately bring it alive though. Confidence has a nifty scam at its core, but it also has enough confidence of its own to let the fine performances be the real star of the show.
( out of four)
Confidence is rated R for language, violence and sexuality/nudity. The running time is 1 hour and 38 minutes.
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