Take the Money and Some Revenge

The heist movie, an old and honorable tradition, is designed

to increase the adrenaline and test the nerves. As heist movies go, The Score is as good as they get. Robert

De Niro plays Nick Wells, a master thief who owns a jazz club in Montreal. Nick

is too old for this kind of stress, and now he just wants to retire from crime,

kick back with a few scotches, listen to some Coltrane and settle down with his

longtime girlfriend Diane, a foxy airline stewardess played by Angela Bassett.

But Max (Marlon Brando), his fence and business partner, pleads with him for

one last job-the biggest score of his career. There’s $6 million in it if Nick

will steal a priceless 17th-century scepter designed for the Queen of France

and smuggled into Canada in the leg of a grand piano that has been quarantined

for termites. The antique is now locked behind the walls of Montreal’s Customs

House, the most impenetrable fortress in Eastern Canada. Nick has grave doubts

about this score, but he needs the $6 million to pay off the mortgage on his

club and retire in style, and his friend Max needs it even more to pay off his

debt to a gangster who is threatening to murder him if he doesn’t come up with

some big money fast. A great thief and a loyal friend, Nick gives in to finance

his retirement and save Max’s life. His troubles are just beginning.

Nick has been in bed with all kinds of crooks in his life,

but he’s never met anyone quite like Jackie Teller (Edward Norton), the cocky

young liaison Max has assigned to crack the Customs House security system. The

strategy of the heist is straightforward enough-blueprints, bypass codes,

myriad details-but the movie takes a right turn every time it signals a left,

and the surprises keep you riveted. First there’s an invasion of freaked-out

computer hackers who sabotage the iron-clad security system. Then there’s the

quirky and dangerous personality of the younger thief himself.

Jackie has respect for Nick, but he has ambitions, too. Posing

as a retarded janitor inside the Customs House, he has won the trust of its

security guards and developed the kind of access vital to the heist, but his

mood swings, aggressiveness and competitive sense of self-importance have Nick

worried. It should come as no surprise that, in the middle of the actual heist,

Jackie betrays Nick while he’s hanging like a chimp between laser beams, and

intends to keep the whole score for himself. But The Score has one more ace up its sleeve, and the final twist will

leave you gasping.

The Score is

directed by Frank Oz, who has come a long way since The Muppets Take Manhattan . Best known for comedies, Mr. Oz reveals

a sharp eye for harrowing detail and builds suspense with nail-biting tension.

Hard writing by Kario Salem, Lem Dobbs and Scott Marshall Smith, a pulsing jazz

score by Howard Shore-with room for on-screen guest appearances by Cassandra

Wilson and Mose Allison, and a hypnotic theme song warbled throatily by Diana

Krall-and gloomy doomsday cinematography by Rob Hahn add immeasurably to the

film’s dark texture. But it’s really the sensational performances that glue

your eyes to the screen.

Mr. Norton’s arrogant, greedy, risk-taking thief and Mr. De

Niro’s wise, experienced, cautious thief with a sense of professional ethics-a

real Humphrey Bogart role if ever I’ve seen one-provide a battle of wills that

quickens the pulse, and in his rumpled white linen ice-cream suit, Marlon

Brando is looking more like Sydney Greenstreet in The Maltese Falcon every day. Watching this formidable trio pound

grit and realism into every scene is like being the fourth hand in a game of

poker played by three professional card sharks: You don’t know what they’ll

pull out of their concealed hands next. I’ve seen all kinds of heist movies, but

The Score blasts off with a special

force and tempo. You bring the imagination; it provides the rocket fuel.

Clueless Goes to Law School

Legally Blonde is

a larky comedy starring the delectable Reese Witherspoon that might just as

well be called Private Benjamin Meets

Family Law . Ms. Witherspoon is positively enchanting as Elle, a Hollywood

bubble-brain who, after designing faux fur panties and appearing in a Ricky

Martin video, gets into Harvard Law. Well, you see, she’s the most popular

blonde on her California campus and well on her way to marrying a gorgeous,

pompous and wealthy socialite named Warner Huntington III-until he decides that

if he’s going to attend Harvard and become a U.S. Senator before the age of 30,

he needs a Jackie on his arm, not a Marilyn. Crushed but not defeated, Elle

decides that the only way to get him back is to enter Harvard Law herself

(Francis Ford Coppola directs her admissions video).

Armed with a wardrobe of pink (her “signature color”), Elle

discovers to her horror that there’s more to success in the Halls of Ivy than a

perky personality and a weekly pedicure. Suddenly Elle is surrounded by jealous

females in navy blazers, lesbian biochemists and eggheads with I.Q.’s higher

than her budget for polka-dot Capri pants. Everyone in class has a laptop; Elle

takes notes in a heart-shaped notebook with a pink feather pen. To the horror

of her dorm, even her cordless phone is covered with pink angora. But there is

more to this Goldie Hawn clone than meets the eye, and before the semester has

ended Elle wins a top internship with a major law firm, goes to trial and

solves a sensational, headline-making murder case. (It seems the defendant is a

sorority sister with an airtight alibi: She was having liposuction at the time

and was too vain to admit it.)

By the time the movie ends, Warner Huntington III has come

back begging, but now it’s Elle who’s changed her priorities: “If I’m going to

be a law partner by the time I’m 30, I’ll need a boyfriend who is not such a

complete bonehead.” O.K., so it’s fluff, but Ms. Witherspoon turns it into the

most convincing fluff of the summer. She can be brainy and say “Wow!” at the

same time. She’s a crafty actress with such finely honed comedic skills that

her transformation from dumb blond nitwit to button-down power player gets

well-deserved applause. In the beginning, she may seem like an escapee from Clueless , but her energy, vitality,

beauty and intelligence (not to mention incredible talent) reveals how much

more there is to Beverly Hills bimbos than Cobb salad and Clinique.

The movie pokes fun at blondes, law-school professors, class

nerds and the battle of the sexes, but what elevates it beyond most frivolities

is a sense of higher purpose. It makes valid points about how first impressions

can deceive and warns against judging society by its labels. Cleverly directed

by Robert Luketic, the film boasts a first-rate cast that includes Luke Wilson,

Selma Blair, Matthew Davis, Victor Garber and Raquel Welch, who knows a few

things about labels herself.

Legally Blonde is

one of those rare comic gems that make you laugh yourself silly and feel good

about the world at the same time. When Elle transcends the clichés and finds

herself empowered by knowledge and self-esteem, she becomes a truly liberated

modern heroine who can still be proud of who she is, even in pink. And as the

charming, golden-haired and warm-hearted centerpiece of this spirited fable,

Reese Witherspoon is living proof that you can’t judge a book by its cover-or a

Cosmo girl by her Clairol.

Selleck Is Hot Summer

Stock

Tom Selleck’s Broadway

debut in the current revival of Herb Gardner’s 1962 comedy A Thousand Clowns is charming and respectable enough to gag the

skeptics on a mouthful of crow. The play is two hours and 45 minutes long, with

two intermissions, but if you’re a Tom Selleck fan, the time passes painlessly.

If this is summer stock, it’s as polished as it gets. If the comic timing is

off, it’s because director John Rando plays it for real, leavening the laughs

with pathos. And if the play seems dated to some (but not to me), it’s because

it’s difficult to ponder the plight of an out-of-work New York comedy-writer

trying to raise a 10-year-old nephew when you’re surrounded by an audience of

workaholics talking to their baby-sitters on cell phones.

This is the one about

Murray, the lazy writer of an NBC kiddie show called Chuckles the Chipmunk , with a star so neurotic and hysterical he

makes Jerry Lewis look like a corpse. Murray (Mr. Selleck) is allergic to

steady permanent employment, a man in a rut whose life is speeding by like an

express train on the IND. Murray lives in a junk-filled one-room apartment with

a precocious “middle-aged kid” named Nick (played by Nicolas King, a moppet who

talks like Edward G. Robinson), who is in danger of being carted away by the

Department of Child Welfare. Murray has a special relationship with Nick, often

addressing him in crowded elevators with lines like “No more self-pity! It’s

about time you got used to being a 40-year-old midget!” The play also explores

the frustrated libidos of an anally retentive social worker (wonderfully played

by Bradford Cover), Murray’s brother and agent, Arnold (Robert LuPone), the

ballistic comedy star of Chuckles (a

show-stopping Mark Blum), and a repressed lady psychologist (Barbara Garrick)

who falls in love with Murray and saves the day with curtains from Macy’s.

The actors are all fine, even if they never manage to

obscure the memory of Jason Robards and Sandy Dennis. In the original

production, Ms. Dennis was an adorable accident waiting to happen, while Ms.

Garrick looks and sounds more like a dim-witted My Friend Irma . But it is Tom Selleck who surprises: He hops. He

does Peter Lorre impressions. He plays the ukulele and sings “Yes Sir, That’s

My Baby.” He can be baffled, befuddled, bombastic and boyish at the same time.

I didn’t even know he could act, but while he was making millions on

forgettable TV shows, he was obviously learning on the job. Whatever he lost by

shaving off his trademark mustache, he’s gained back in stature. He may still

lack the training, subtlety, timing and magic of Jason Robards, but for a big

man he has the versatility and sensitivity to narrow your intimate focus on

whatever he’s doing onstage without the need of a small pin spot. In A Thousand Clowns , he carves a very

imposing presence and makes a Broadway bow that is solid and gratifying enough

to shock your socks off.