Con Artists and 10 Percenters

Confidence, a sleek and saucy little number about con artists on the loose in LA, is more than a little in love with itself—and with good reason. Clocking in at a trim 97 minutes, the movie, directed by James Foley from an impeccably literate script by newcomer Doug Jung, unveils enough plot twists to cross the eyes of even the most seasoned crime-caper enthusiast. The movie's structural intricacies rival those of Memento, but Confidence is as warm, playful and inclusive of its audience as Memento was harsh and distant. Early on, someone announces that the con game “is like putting on a play, where everyone knows his part—except the mark.” There will be marks aplenty as the action unfolds, and the big one, of course, is us.

“So I'm dead,” announces Jake Vig (Edward Burns), the narrator and trickster-in-chief, as his blood-spattered body lies spread-eagled in a back alley. Then the action backs up three weeks and gives us Jake and his team of sidekicks in another gory face-off, in which one of Jake's team is shot dead, as is the accountant of a powerful pornmeister known as the King (Dustin Hoffman). Jake offers to make it up to the King by pulling off his most impudent con yet, with crooked super-banker Morgan Price (Robert Forster, in a cameo) as the patsy. To this end, along with his usual cronies (who include a couple of bent cops, played by Donal Logue and the indispensable Luis Guzman), Jake recruits Lily, a beautiful identity thief played by the sultry Rachel Weisz, who applies herself with such brio to drawling the word asshole that you quite forget the actress is a decidedly upmarket Brit. Though women and sex are typically no more than hasty afterthoughts in the crime caper, Lily's no bit player. Indeed, she and Jake make better partners than lovers. With his shifty, deep-set eyes and offhand detachment, Burns has never made a convincing romantic lead. But he does very nicely as a shyster, and his mischievous performance more than makes up for the dippy movies he has inflicted on us as a director. Much of the movie's pleasure comes from the chemistry between the suave, inscrutable Jake and Hoffman's dementedly excitable crime boss, for which the actor draws on both Ratzo Rizzo and the Rain Man.

Following a promising start with the Jim Thompson adaptation After Dark, My Sweet, Foley has had a checkered career. His elegant but dry work in Glengarry Glen Ross, based on the virtually unadaptable David Mamet play, gave way to a bunch of forgettable films. (Anyone remember Two Bits? The Chamber? The Corrupter?) If nothing else, Confidence ought to confirm Foley as a master of neo-noir with an amused eye to the parallels between grifting and making movies. Though Foley and Jung aren't the first to make such comparisons, they understand better than most that when it comes to good scams and movies, it's style—the how more than the what—that separates the sheep from the goats. The insight, like the movie, is hardly profound, but the execution is exquisitely controlled. Confidence grooves on the giddy joy of storytelling: on the digressive whimsy of good dialogue, on playful editing, on the ways in which con men—and filmmakers—psych out their victims. The movie reels us in, plays to our baser instincts, invites our trust, flatters our skepticism, and pays us out again at the precise moment our guard is let down. No matter that in a genre that has been done to death, there's really nothing new to say about the nexus of money and mistrust that is the American way of doing business, legit or otherwise. By the end, when a slew of scams has been artfully tied together in a neat bow, the movie leaves us awash in something approaching post-coital delight. We know we've been used, and we've loved every minute of it.

* * *

People I Know

In People I Know, a glum and muddled effort about the unholy marriage of politics and celebrity, Al Pacino plays Eli Wurman, a once-prominent New York publicist whose star has faded to the point where he has only one bankable client, Cary Launer (Ryan O'Neal), a feckless airhead who's weighing a run for the Senate. Pacino—hollow-eyed, his hair carefully teased into dishevelment, and laboring under a Southern accent that brings back painful memories of Scent of a Woman—staggers around doing a stoned variant of his endless supply of doomed rent-a-wrecks. Even then the actor might be fun to watch, were he not being asked to stand in for the Tragic Death of the '60s. A Georgia Jew who once marched with Martin Luther King Jr., Eli reinvented himself after the civil rights era as a Manhattan kingmaker, helping to lay the foundations of a world—a pricey blend of Hollywood political hopefuls and starstruck tycoons, among others—that has now discarded him like a used match. Disillusioned but not yet in despair, Eli is making a last-ditch effort to stay afloat honestly by staging an all-star benefit for Nigerian immigrants who are about to be deported under the house-cleaning operations of New York's cowboy mayor (guess who?). For this, he needs Launer's presence, as well as that of an Al Sharpton-like Harlem minister (Bill Nunn) and Elliot Sharansky, a philanthropically inclined Jewish businessman played by The West Wing's congenitally impassive Richard Schiff.

As the movie opens, Launer, who has been threatening to fire Eli, asks him to baby-sit a temperamental starlet named Jilli Hopper (played with some desperation by a woefully miscast Ta Leoni) for the evening. After bailing Jilli out of jail, Eli reluctantly accompanies her back to the high-profile party where she was arrested to retrieve a computer toy she left there. The place turns out to be a sex-and-opium den for high rollers, and later that night, Eli, fogged by this and other drugs overprescribed by his physician (comedian Robert Klein), looks on helplessly as Jilli is doped, raped and—it will later transpire—murdered in her hotel suite, leaving Eli in possession of the toy, in which all manner of unexpected people are taking an unhealthy interest.

Directed by Dan Algrant from a script by playwright Jon Robin Baitz, People I Know is awkwardly derivative, both in subject and noirish ambiance, of Alexander Mackendrick's far more pungent 1957 Sweet Smell of Success. Clifford Odets, adapting Ernest Lehman's novel, was out to lift the lid on a corrupt world, but he had both an amused appetite for its excesses and an unflinching moral sensibility. People I Know is chilly and humorless, fueled by the cynical belief—a creeping affliction among some former '60s leftists who can no longer find a flag to hoist—that power corrupts everyone who wields it. For all its knowing veneer, the movie is politically crude and undiscriminating. The dishonest and the decadent pile up—not just tycoons and pols, but rabbis, reverends and ACLU bigwigs are also implicated, until there's no one left ethically intact but Eli and a rather redundant sister-in-law (Kim Basinger, looking trs Hepburn) who blows in from the South to lure him back to a simpler, nobler life. As a thriller, People I Know—which has languished unreleased since 2001—is barely plausible. As a critique of the meshing of power politics between East and West coasts, the movie is more smart-alecky than wise. And as the human face of Tony Curtis' venal, conniving press agent in Sweet Smell of Success, Eli Wurman is less than convincing. When all is said and done, a public-relations flack seems an odd choice to represent the spirit of the '60s, let alone its death knell.

Confidence was directed by James Foley; written by Doug Jung; produced by Marc Butan, Michael Paseornek, Michael Burns and Michael Ohoven; and stars Edward Burns and Dustin Hoffman. Now playing countywide;People I Know was directed by Dan Algrant; written by Jon Robin Baitz; produced by Michael Nozik, Leslie Urdang and Karen Tenkhoff; and stars Al Pacino and Ryan O'Neal. Now playing at select theaters.

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