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Confidence   B

Lions Gate Films

Year Released: 2003
MPAA Rating: R
Director: James Foley
Writer: Doug Jung
Cast: Edward Burns, Rachel Weisz, Andy Garcia, Dustin Hoffman, Paul Giamatti, Donal Logue, Luis Guzman, Brian Van Holt, Robert Forster.

Review by Rob Vaux

The risk in any confidence scam comes with being too predictable. If the mark spots the game before it comes to fruition, things get ugly very quickly. The same is true for movies about confidence games. In many ways, we the audience are the mark, and while we may know the true colors of the hustlers on-screen, it behooves them to pull the rug out from under us anyway. Safe within our theater seats, we can laugh and marvel at how the filmmakers tricked us; our own gullibility helps to keep us entertained. But if we see where they're leading us -- if we note the twists two or three steps ahead -- then we lose the joy of their audacity.

Confidence, the latest cinematic shell game from director James Foley, ultimately falls into this trap, though it has plenty of diversions to occupy us in the meantime. It's a good film that strives to be great, a sharp piece of noir that can't quite sucker us the way the best in the genre do. Thankfully, it understands the ruthless cynicism that guides most con stories, and has a talented cast ready to make the most of it. That, along with a brisk turn from Foley, is enough to keep it on its feet.

Its two biggest assets take the form of the mastermind and his mark. Edward Burns, a charming presence even in the worst of times, makes a perfectly beguiling grifter; as Jake Vig he displays both the smarts to spot big money and the ruthlessness to go after it. Early on in Confidence, he sets his sights on a big target -- The King (Dustin Hoffman), a pint-sized crime boss with an eye for strippers and a bad case of ADD. In other hands, the King might have just been a collection of quirks, but Hoffman has the effortless ability to make him both fascinating and complete. Together, he and Burns form a strong pair of tentpoles under which Confidence can develop its complicated scheme.

Naturally, it's not as simple as Vig picking the King out of a crowd. He and his crew unknowingly fleece an important underling, stealing a substantial chunk of the King's money. Before they realize their error, one of their number has a bullet in his head and the rest are ready to cut and run, leaving Vig to do some fast thinking. So he approaches the King directly, offering to pay back the funds by pulling an even bigger scam on the crime lord's hated rival. Unfortunately, the plan requires an additional player, and Vig settles on a pickpocket femme fatale named Lily (Rachel Weisz) who may not have the group's best interests at heart. He also neglects to mention the federal marshal (Andy Garcia) on his trail, who could land the entire lot of them in prison.

In unfolding this story, Confidence touches on all of the requisite genre stereotypes without ever rising above them. Vig's scheme contains the usual array of double- and triple-crosses, along with a hard-boiled voice-over (from a dead man, no less) and a corrupt vision of Los Angeles that we've seen countless times in the last 60 years. Within that framework, the twists become difficult to hide, and attentive moviegoers can gauge exactly where Confidence plans to throw them for a loop. Without the element of surprise, its payoff loses a fair amount of punch.

The film makes up for it, however, in the little details. Like he did in Glengarry Glen Ross, Foley demonstrates considerable skill working with an ensemble, aptly balancing the characters with the needs of the story. As a technical exercise Confidence is well-tuned, and the 98 minute running time feels just about right. The script brims with terrific dialogue, which the cast takes great relish in delivering, and the uniformly excellent performances never become forced or mannered (with the possible exception of Garcia, who's engaging but too handsome to pull off the rumpled Columbo shtick that his role calls for).

Perhaps most importantly, Confidence takes pains to exemplify the sort of human fallibility on which noir thrives. There are no victims here, no innocents led astray, just a lot of greedy people whose morals take a nosedive whenever a lot of money shows up. Those who are honest about their flaws prosper, while those in denial pay the price. Such stories never get old, especially when they're as polished as this one. Confidence is at its best when it revels in its characters' bad behavior, and Foley clearly enjoys showing it to us, even when the pattern becomes too clear. We may not be fooled by the con game on display, but Confidence makes us willing to play anyway.

Review published 04.21.2003.

* * *

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