Neo Cons

John C. Reily, left, and Diego Luna in Criminal.

Readers sometimes ask me if there’s any type of film I particularly like, and my standard answer is “Good ones.” (I’m also partial to good-bad ones.) But there is a genre that usually keeps me watching: movies about con artists. Perhaps this is because, on some level, the movie medium itself is a glorified con game, with the director as master scammer and us in the audience as the marks. We see only what the filmmaker wants us to see, and at any time it can all reveal itself to be a façade, a ruse. I enjoy puzzling out con-game movies because the match of wits can be exhilarating even when the movie isn’t—at least you feel like you’re doing something constructive sitting in the dark.

Criminal, co-written and directed by first-timer Gregory Jacobs, is taut and straightforward and a little grungy, which is how these movies ought to be (as opposed to spangly showcases like The Sting, the Cleopatra of con movies). Set in Los Angeles over 24 hours, and based on the Argentine film Nine Queens, it has a noirish, low-budget appeal and a terrific cast. John C. Reilly is Richard Gaddis, a loudmouth trickster who, in search of a new partner, gloms onto Diego Luna’s Rodrigo, a petty hustler looking for a fast score to settle his father’s gambling debts. Their initial face-off in a casino, where Rodrigo botches a con involving two cocktail waitresses, is a pas de deux between crooks—they size each other up not only as partners but as potential marks. It soon becomes clear that each man has his own larcenous style: Richard likes to make big blustery scenes to camouflage his intentions; Rodrigo gets by on his nice-guy charm. He has a face that people instinctively trust, and for all his cunning Richard knows this is something he can never have.

“John C. Reilly is a master at playing small-timers who think they’re big-time: Ripping off the dry cleaner brings out his swagger.”

Their sting involves selling an expertly forged, extremely rare U.S. government monetary certificate from 1878 to an Irish collector (Peter Mullan) staying at the same fancy hotel where Richard’s sister, Valerie (a neo-vampish Maggie Gyllenhaal), is the concierge. She’s suing him for her share of their mother’s inheritance, which Richard, ever the opportunist, regards as fair game. (He tells his protégé, “I don’t get the whole family thing.”) He thinks nothing of pimping Valerie to score the con, and since this is Noirsville, nothing is out of bounds if the price is right. One of the running jokes in Criminal is that in order to carry out his supposedly foolproof scheme, Richard the greed-hound must give up an ever greater portion of his cut to keep the game going. Reilly is a master at playing small-timers who think they’re big-time: Ripping off the dry cleaner, or a gullible grandmother, brings out Richard’s cock-of-the-walk swagger. He regards everyone as a patsy, which of course sets him up for a fall.

Criminal is too formulaic, and I’m not sure its neat wrap-up makes sense (it didn’t in Nine Queens, either). But Jacobs is onto something new when he contrasts Richard, who plies his trade in Beverly Hills, with Rodrigo, who is from East L.A. They represent not only opposing styles of bunco but also parallel worlds within the same city. Jacobs has brought the barrio into noir, and that’s no small achievement. If nothing else, it opens the door to a whole new galaxy of grift.

At the beginning of Red Lights, adapted from a Georges Simenon novel by Cédric Kahn, Antoine (Jean-Pierre Darroussin), a zhlubby, Wallace Shawn–esque insurance-company drone, and his wife, Hélène (Carole Bouquet), a stunning corporate lawyer, set off from Paris by car to pick up their children at summer camp. Their disparity is more than comical—it’s almost hallucinatory. We feel that these two could be together only as part of a wish-fulfillment fantasy (his). The reality is much starker. As he pulls into bars along the way and gets progressively drunker, Antoine yells at his wife, unjustly, for failing to treat him like a man. Finally, she leaves him a note saying she’s taking the train instead. The loss of someone in the night carries with it a particular dread; it’s as if the darkness itself were a conspirator. Hélène doesn’t reappear for a long time, but her glacéed presence—reminiscent of a Hitchcock heroine’s—hovers over the movie like a chill wind. Antoine goes crazy trying to track her down, which is complicated by the fact that the hitchhiker he’s picked up is most likely an escaped criminal for whom the police have been setting up roadblocks. Kahn expands the dreamlike quality of the marital pairing into a sinister fantasia in which everything is fated to go wrong—except, perhaps, the love that inexplicably binds this couple. Red Lights is the most ambiguously compelling romance around.

You know you’re in James Toback country when, in the first scene of When Will I Be Loved, you see a woman masturbating in a shower as Beethoven plays on the soundtrack. Neve Campbell’s Vera is a spoiled, rich hedonist who goes with whatever excites her. Her hustler boyfriend (Frederick Weller) thinks he’s in control, but Vera is as unreachable, and as malevolent, as any noir temptress. Toback’s fascination with her is also a compulsion; he’s driven to get to the heart of someone who is heartless. He himself shows up for a while, playing a motormouth professor of racial studies at Columbia, and his street-roaming dialogue with Vera, full of brash innuendo, is the film’s comic high point—he’s sending up his own avidity. But Vera may be more alluring for him than for us. In much the same way that Godard used heroines like Anna Karina or Bardot, Toback showcases Campbell’s face as a placard of unknowability—a quality he recognizes as inherently feminine. The (inadvertent) question we are left with is, How much is there to know about her anyway?

The period re-creations in Mira Nair’s adaptation of Thackeray’s Vanity Fair are sumptuous, and Eileen Atkins, as a desiccated spinster aunt, steals the show whenever she toddles into frame. But as the low-born Becky Sharp, Reese Witherspoon is just too doggone nice to be the ultimate poster girl for Victorian upward mobility. Clearly, Nair sees Becky as a feminist precursor whose calculations are good for the cause, but her wiles lack bite. The effect is a bit like watching Gone With the Wind with a dumpling substituting for Scarlett O’Hara.

Neo Cons