The appeal of the con game to playwrights and film directors is that scams are a potent form of storytelling: A skilled grifter gets people to part with their fortunes just by spinning a tale. As for the perennial appeal of the con-game flick to audiences, that’s harder to understand. Yes, the con artist is charming and assured, a master of the universe with a twinkle in his
or her eye. And an account of an impeccably executed conjust like an old-fashioned murder mysteryoffers a perfectly ordered universe as an alternative to the messy one we actually inhabit. But see one sting movieor five or sixand you’ve seen them all. The only possible goal for a film like Confidence is to put a few new twists into a familiar spiral.
The movie opens with what might be its conclusion, as Jake (Ed Burns, a bit less smarmy than usual) begins to explain a job he and his pals finished three weeks earlier: Jake, Gordo (Paul Giamatti), and Miles (Brian Van Holt) successfully hustle Lionel (Leland Orser) with the help of two corrupt LAPD officers (Donal Logue and Luis Guzmán). But then Lionel and one of the grifters turn up dead, and Jake learns that the scam victim worked for an eccentric local gangster, the King (an exuberantly self-amused Dustin Hoffman). Jake has no choice but to apologetically visit the King in his lair, an upscale strip joint where the gang boss interrupts their conversation to instruct two dancers on how to lick each other tastefully. The King knows just how Jake can compensate for his error: sting Morgan Price (Robert Forster), a corrupt banker and the King’s longtime rival.
In this scheme, Jake has two new accomplices, one of his choosing and one not. The King assigns a thug from his own stable, Lupus (Franky G), to participate, and Jake recruits foxy Lily (Rachel Weisz)who reacts venomously to Jake’s initial overture, pretty much guaranteeing they’ll be in bed together within the hour. The cast of scammers and scammees keeps growing, but the only other crucial players are Price’s enforcer Travis (Morris Chestnut) and Gunther (Andy Garcia), a scruffy federal agent who pressures the crooked cops to help him snare Jake. As for the con itself, suffice it to say that it has something to do with offshore banking.
Apparently, no contemporary con movie can escape David Mamet’s influence; it’s no surprise that director James Foley also oversaw Mamet’s Glengarry Glen Ross. First-time feature writer Doug Jung includes numerous Mametlike procedural details that the characters profess to take seriously, but that are really no more credible than their most elaborate ruses. Still, Confidence’s flamboyant, self-conscious style suggests Quentin Tarantino (or Guy Ritchie or Roger Avary) more than Mamet. If Jake is the kind of poised mover who can script his own life, Foley never lets us forget that the con manand all the other charactersare merely pieces on the director’s chess board. He flaunts his authorial presence with flashy editing, comic-book colors, and insistent musicincluding a song by Madonna, the star of Foley’s biggest flop, Who’s That Girl.
“You can’t trick karma,” Jake explains, but that’s exactly what Confidence tries to do. It’s a schemer’s movie about schemers, and its central task is to fool you into thinking there could be something new to the grifter genre. It doesn’t quite succeed, but Foley is skillful enough to make it a nifty bit of misdirection.
Sling Blade may have established Billy Bob Thornton as a leading man, but it also typed him as the slow, troubled loner who acts as the agent of a greater power in fables of vengeance and redemption. In writer-director Ed Solomon’s ironically (or at least inaccurately) titled Levity, Thornton is a taciturn, shellshocked ex-con with shoulder-length gray hair. He seems part autistic man-child, part skid-row Jesuswhich is roughly the role he plays in the lives of the people he’s about to encounter.
Manual Jordan (Thornton) doesn’t want to meet anyone new. He expects to stay in prison, marinating in his guilt over having shot and killed a teenage convenience-store clerk 23 years earlier. But everyone sees something in Manual he doesn’t recognize himself, beginning with the parole board. His sentence commuted, Manual numbly arrives in a bleak, Chicago-ish city (actually Montreal) with no contacts but one goal: making amends. Aimlessly answering a ringing pay phone, he finds himself talking not to Kiefer Sutherland but to Morgan Freeman.
Freeman portrays Miles Evans, a soup-kitchen preacher who draws his unwilling flock from among the rich and trendy rather than the poor and hungry. His mission sits across the street from a dance club, and in exchange for letting the techno kids park in the building’s lot, he makes them listen to a few minutes of his nightly Bible talk. Miles recruits Manual as the parking-lot attendant and gives him a suitably dreary room in exchange for cleaning duties. Manual also inherits another job: Taking care of Sofia Mellinger (Kirsten Dunst), a quick-witted but out-of-control club regular who frequently ends a night of partying by passing out.
At first, these tasks are merely a distraction from Manual’s self-appointed crusade: Somehow making life better for Adele Easley (Holly Hunter), the sister of his victim. He starts by helping to carry her groceries home, and he soon sidles into a creepily inappropriate friendship with the woman, who still doesn’t know he killed her brother. In addition to watching over Sophia, Manual starts to look out for Adele’s hotheaded son Abner (Geoffrey Wigdor), who’s getting into the same sort of trouble the ex-con did as a teen.
Levity is a sort of messianic noir, set on wintry streets shot by Coen Brothers regular Roger Deakins in cold colors that emulate black and white. Perhaps Solomon, making his directorial debut after writing the Bill & Ted movies and Men in Black, thought the deep-freeze look and tone would keep people from laughing out loud at this paper-thin parable and its too-tidy resolution. But that would be giving Levity too much credit: Conceptually, Billy Bob’s latest shot at redemption merits merely a yawn. CP