[Screen It]

(2003) (Ed Burns, Rachel Weisz) (R)

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Drama: A grifter and his team try to pull off an elaborate con to repay a flamboyant but dangerous gangster.
Jake Vig (EDWARD BURNS) is a slick but no-nonsense grifter who's currently on his knees with hitman Travis (MORRIS CHESTNUT) holding a gun to his head, wondering where the money is. Jake then proceeds to recount what led to that point, with the story rewinding three weeks back. With the help of his team - including Miles (BRIAN VAN HOLT), Gordo (PAUL GIAMATTI) and Big Al (LOUIS LOMBARDI) as well as corrupt cops Whitworth (DONAL LOGUE) and Manzano (LUIS GUZMAN) - he conned Lionel Dolby (LELAND ORSER).

But then Dolby and Big Al end up dead and Jake learns that the dupe was an accountant for The King (DUSTIN HOFFMAN), a flamboyant but dangerous criminal kingpin. To make things right and pay off his newly acquired debt, Jake offers to pull a con for King. He agrees and wants Jake to fleece Morgan Price (ROBERT FORRESTER), the son of a mob attorney and current corporate banker.

With King's assistant, Lupus (FRANKY G), in tow and convincing alluring pickpocket Lily (RACHEL WEISZ) to join them, Jake and his team set out to set up and execute the con. Yet, when Jake's long-time nemesis and current federal agent, Gunther Butan (ANDY GARCIA), shows up and starts nosing around, that threatens to undermine both Jake's plan and his life.

OUR TAKE: 7 out of 10
Ask any grifter or con artist and they'll tell you that to be successful in such an endeavor, one must possess confidence in their craft and the ability to get the dupe to believe their story so much that they never see what's coming.

Ask any filmmaker mounting a picture about such characters and a related ruse and they'll tell you pretty much the sane thing. Namely, that's concocting a story that lures in the viewer and gets them so involved in what's being told and seen that they don't notice the puppeteer behind the scenes or predict how things will turn out.

The difference, of course, is that viewers realize they're watching a movie about cons rather than being surprised by that sudden revelation in real life, and thus raise their grifter radar to watch for such material. Rather than that being a problem, however, it's part of the interactive fun of the genre and that's certainly the case in "Confidence."

The tale of a grifter, his crew, their dupe and an assortment of potentially untrustworthy secondary characters, the film comes off as a grittier version of the likes of "Ocean's Eleven" or "The Sting," but is still rather entertaining to behold.

As directed by James Foley ("The Corruptor," "The Chamber") - who works from a script by Doug Jung (making his feature film debut) - the film starts off in the present with a homicide and then backtracks a few weeks to show us what led up to that moment.

I've never been a huge fan of such storytelling devices since they often ruin a film's momentum and usually don't end up adding much to the proceedings. Throw in voice-over narration from the victim about what is occurring and what's transpired -- including moments where he addresses the viewer by looking directly into the camera -- and you're starting to push your luck in testing my patience regarding such cinematic devices.

Fortunately, the latter is part of the film's overall con nature and the former isn't as horribly disruptive as it might have been (although the film could have jettisoned it with no ill-effect that could have made the "surprise" ending more satisfactory).

Foley also utilizes a number of swish pan visual transitions between scenes and a few special effects to jazz up the proceedings. While not exactly necessary or needed, they do give the film something of a fun and even refreshing retro feel in today's music video style world.

To make such a picture work, however, both the story and characters need to engage the viewer and they certainly do that here. I'm a sucker for con artist type plots, particularly when they involve an elaborate or difficult ruse. Jung's story has enough of that to keep things interesting and constantly moving forward.

Although it isn't anything we haven't seen before in terms of both the genre and underlying structure, and the surprises aren't terribly shocking (one hopes that Foley knows that and is just going through the motions for "the fun of it"), the film still works in its storytelling quest.

The story's nothing, however, if the characters and performers aren't there to pull it off. Fortunately, Foley gets some good ones from his cast and Jung's script. When I first heard that Edward Burns ("Sidewalks of New York," "Saving Private Ryan") was playing the lead, I was a bit concerned because the actor's performances often end up meshing together. To my surprise, he delivers one of his best yet, with his usual sarcastic tendencies working well with his smart, but no-nonsense character.

Paul Giamatti ("Private Parts," "Man on the Moon") and Brian Van Holt ("Windtalkers," "Black Hawk Down") are good as two members of his team, while Rachel Weisz ("The Shape of Things," "About A Boy") does the alluring thing quite well. Other performances from the likes of Donal Logue ("The Tao of Steve," "Blade") and Luis Guzman ("Welcome to Collinwood," "The Count of Monte Cristo") as corrupt cops and Andy Garcia ("Ocean's Eleven," "The Man From Elysian Fields") as the antagonistic complication to the plan are equally strong.

While Morris Chestnut ("Like Mike," "Half Past Dead") can't do much with his contemporary thug character, Dustin Hoffman ("Moonlight Mile," "Mad City") chews up the scenery and then some as a gum-chewing, ADD mobster with a penchant for live porn. While his might be over the top, most of the performances fit into the rest of the proceedings like cogs in a well-oiled machine.

With some omissions - including the present day story, narration and a few unnecessary and somewhat out of place on-screen visual effects - and a bit of tweaking here and there, this could have been a gritty classic of the genre. As long as you don't expect that, or mind such material and can accept its minor problems, you'll probably enjoy this offering. I did, and thus "Confidence" rates as a 7 out of 10.

Reviewed March 31, 2003 / Posted April 25, 2003

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