High Stakes

Love Is A Drug: Nick Nolte acts as Nutsa Kukhianidze's protector in The Good Thief.Photo: David Appleby

Nick Nolte can be utterly convincing playing both dissolute wrecks who pull out their rotting teeth (Affliction) and pomaded captains of industry in black tie and tails from the world of Henry James (The Golden Bowl). His characters are never clear-cut, though: The wrecks have their existential graces, and the captains are often clouded by regret. In Neil Jordan’s The Good Thief, Nolte gets to play someone who is both a lowlife and a natural-born aristocrat. And more than ever he makes it clear how thin the dividing line is between the two.

Bob Montagnet (Nolte) is a legendary American expatriate gambler and heroin addict who has been reduced to shooting up in a seedy Nice nightspot. Mess that he is, he still commands considerable respect in this netherworld, and he makes it his mission to shelter a 17-year-old Eastern European waitress, Anne (the talented newcomer Nutsa Kukhianidze), from the club’s pimp owner. Bob is bemused by her, and by his own crotchety valor. Her youth is a tonic for him, but he doesn’t lose his cool over it; his romance is not so much with her as it is with himself—he likes the kick he gets from being a savior. When his gangster cronies present him with a scheme for robbing the largest casino in Monte Carlo, Bob shapes up, handcuffing himself to his bed and going cold turkey. He reanimates himself as a dapper dude.

The Good Thief is derived from a classic 1955 Jean-Pierre Melville noir, Bob Le Flambeur, and Neil Jordan draws on Melville’s dark fatalism; but he is also captivated by the glossy To Catch a Thief decadence of the Riviera. Bob’s both night owl and sun worshiper. Thankfully, the contrast is played for fun. But even though Jordan isn’t up to very much in The Good Thief except putting on a good show, there are numerous deep-dish narrative motifs embedded in the glitz: For example, the robbery scheme involves two concurrent heists—one real, the other a diversion—and throughout the film, we are asked to separate the fake from the actual in everything that we see, even in the characters. All are presumed to be thieves, con artists—especially men of genius. “He stole from everybody,” Bob says proudly of Picasso, who he claims gave him one of his canvases after losing a bet at a bullfight.

Jordan is so enthralled with the idea of making a classy caper movie that he often overdoes his stylistic curlicues. (A perfect-crime plot is perfect only if we can follow it.) Steven Soderbergh had the same problem in Ocean’s Eleven, which also was afflicted with artiness. At times, The Good Thief is like a fashion show of swank, outré imagery, and all this froufrou slows down the pleasures of the heist. Jordan doesn’t have the right pulp feeling for just getting the job done; he can’t resist showing off, and some of his flourishes are pretty flimsy—like the way he keeps freezing the action for no reason except, apparently, to make it seem as if the movie had hiccups.

All this dazzle would normally sink a movie of this kind, just as it sank Ocean’s Eleven, but fortunately there’s also Nolte’s ravaged flamboyance. He may seem to lurch through the landscape, but he’s surprisingly light on his feet. This actor is comfortable in his rough hide. Bob is a prince of his own domain, and he has the true con artist’s antennae for pretenders to the throne. Because he always knows what’s around him, it’s almost comically impossible for the police to tail him without being seen. He loves being followed; it means he matters. Bob is a marvelous creation—a faker who is also the genuine article. He’s the perfect hero for a movie about the world as one big scam.

Directed by Jim Simpson and based on a two-character play by Anne Nelson originally staged at Tribeca’s Flea Theater, The Guys is a hushed and powerful piece about the grief sustained in the immediate aftermath of 9/11. Anthony LaPaglia plays a fire captain who seeks out a journalist, played by Sigourney Weaver, to compose the eulogies he will soon be called upon to deliver for his lost men. Their all-day session, which is based, in part, on Nelson’s own experience, is intended as a metaphor for the ways in which we come to terms with all kinds of sorrow, and yet it never loses its specificity. Weaver (who is married to Simpson) has a frayed gravity in the role, while LaPaglia plays a “common man” most uncommonly—he doesn’t condescend to us by overdoing the earthiness. It is the fire captain’s wish that his men not be eulogized as plaster saints, that their ordinariness be recognized and saluted. Nelson has said that right after 9/11, the media culture, particularly television, “moved almost instantly into combative posture: ‘America at war.’ It wasn’t capturing what I and the people around me were actually feeling.” By being so emotionally honest, The Guys is a corrective to all that blare.

It’s been a while since we’ve seen Jeanne Moreau in a good old-fashioned showcase role, but all that’s changed with Josée Dayan’s Cet Amour-Là, in which she plays with great élan the French author-filmmaker-essayist Marguerite Duras. Moreau knew Duras, but her performance doesn’t have that waxworks feeling common to most homages. Perhaps it’s because the Duras in this film, at 66, finds herself enraptured by an adoring college student, Yann Andréa (Aymeric Demarigny), with whom she lived for the last sixteen years of her life. (The movie makes you want to taste her lovingly prepared purée-of-chestnut soup.) I wish that Andréa weren’t such a drip. He’s simply no match for this grand old crone, and it makes their amour fou a lot less fou. The real passion here is the almost erotic thrill that acting still holds for Moreau.

Joel Schumacher’s rackety melodrama Phone Booth, written by Larry Cohen, stars Colin Farrell as a New York showbiz publicist who is trapped in a phone booth by a sniper threatening to kill him if he hangs up. Originally scheduled for a fall ’02 release, the movie was bumped because of the Washington sniper attacks. Presumably it’s okay for us to enjoy it now—the world, after all, is a much safer place.

The Good Thief
Directed by Neil Jordan; starring Nick Nolte and Nutsa Kukhianidze.

The Guys
Directed by Jim Simpson; starring Anthony LaPaglia and Sigourney Weaver.

High Stakes