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Wednesday, Feb. 18, 2004
ALL STYLE, NO SUBSTANCE
Don't get stung by this one
By KAORI SHOJI
"Confidence" is the cinematic equivalent of a dream date that's really a nightmare: gorgeous, stylish and utterly insincere. You know half an hour into your second Martini (which he suggested you drink, of course) that this guy, no matter how presentable, is not a person to introduce to your mother. He's callous. Shallow. Always on the cell phone to some girl called Cindy or Aliysha. Sigh. Likewise, "Confidence," which is directed by James Foley ("Glengarry Glen Ross") and stars Edward Burns, is all talk (an astounding amount of lines, plus a voice-over narrative throughout) and swagger, expensive suits and gleaming convertibles. The style-over-content factor is so deliberate that you begin to wonder if the title is masking a secret insecurity.
"Confidence" is the tale of a young grifter trying to pull off a big con. Foley has called this a remake of "The Sting," but the differences are a bit glaring, like an unmemorable soundtrack and the sad fact that you can't bring yourself to care about any of the characters.
Burns ("Sidewalks of New York") plays a trickster named Jake Vig, who is supposedly a composite of Paul Newman and Robert Redford in the George Roy Hill original. This is a tall order for any seasoned A-list actor, and for Burns (for all his surplus of down-home Irish charm), it's a veritable Mount Everest. In the opening sequence he seems compelling -- we are introduced to Jake as he lies there, face down in a pool of his own blood ("So, I'm dead. It was probably the redhead"). But Jake quickly loses his mysteriousness as the story unfolds in a series of flashbacks set to the intoning of his endless monologue.
No grifter should talk so much. The more he babbles, the more you feel that he got what was coming and this kind of vindictive reaction enhances the bad-date ambience. Tough luck, Jake.
Jake got into a tight spot when he (unknowingly) conned a runner working for "The King" (Dustin Hoffman) out of $150,000, which he and his friends blew immediately. That same night, one friend winds up with a bullet in his head -- a calling card from the King. Jake goes posthaste to see the underworld boss and proposes to compensate by giving him a cut from the biggest con job of his life.
The pair's face-off, held in the King's strip bar, is the high point of the movie. Burns plays it cool while slightly oozing anxiety, and Hoffman pours on the sleaze, a mix of menace and flirt (looking pointedly at Jake's physique before cooing "You Irish muscle-ass"). You suspect the King would have goosed Jake then and there if it weren't for the presence of two scantily clad girls who've come in for a strip-dance interview ("Sisters, huh. That's good, I like sisters"). Hoffman obviously relishes every minute of the whole exchange, strutting his sloppiness and insatiable carnal inclinations. Never has he seemed so deliciously scummy, and you miss him the moment he exits from the scene.
The King agrees to Jake's terms, on the condition that his con include one of his own men: the smirking Lupus (Franky G). After Jake ups the ante by insisting that he bring in a professional pickpocket named Lily (Rachel Weisz), the team is complete.
The other heavyweight in the story is greasy, scruffy FBI agent Buthane (Andy Garcia), who has been after Jake for years and is looking to catch him red-handed. Caught between two over-seasoned, revenge-hungry lowlifes, Jake comes off as a polished aristocrat in Hugo Boss but that doesn't mean he invites our sympathy. His exaggerated smoothness doesn't quite mask the obvious phoniness. Even his professed emotions, like wanting to avenge the murder of his buddy, rings false and the supposed "trusted" relationship he shares with the rest of his team (played by Paul Giamatti and Brian Van Holt) lacks conviction. Grifting is about getting someone to trust you first, and by this definition Jake's team couldn't fool a third grader.
Perhaps this is because the characters seem to have so little to say to each other, maybe because "Confidence" (written by New York University grad Doug Jung) is an exercise in f-word gratuity. Not only does Jung use it to replace every adjective, he also has the characters repeat it, six or seven times in a single sentence whenever something upsets them, which is practically all the time. Not even "Pulp Fiction" was so abusive and the Neanderthalic lack of vocabulary shrivels the nerve synapses after 15 minutes of exposure. Part of what made "The Sting" wonderful was the snappy, conversations brimming with con jargon; in "Confidence," the same jargon is strewn about, but it's difficult to pick the words out of the muck. It's filth with style, yes, but so what? In the words of the King, "Sometimes, style can kill ya."