An Ingenious Walk Along The Shady Side of the Street

James Foley’s Confidence , from a screenplay by Doug Jung, dispenses with the pseudo-camaraderie of many crime-scam movies to provide a fitting parable of paranoia for our terminally corrupt age, both on and off the screen. Mr. Foley has been working the shady side of the street since his debut film, Reckless (1984), which also marked the debut of Aidan Quinn, as a potentially delinquent teenager who attracts a sheltered but susceptible co-ed, played by Daryl Hannah. Mr. Foley was on target again with his next film, At Close Range (1986), with ex-con Christopher Walken painfully trying to corrupt his son, played by Sean Penn. But then Mr. Foley ran afoul of Madonna in the disastrously unfunny screwball comedy, Who’s That Girl (1987). He bounced back, however, with his best film, After Dark, My Sweet (1990), with brilliantly noirish performances by Jason Patric, Rachel Ward and Bruce Dern. That film’s level of passion and feeling has not been attained in his subsequent works: Glengarry Glen Ross (1992), Two Bits (1995), Fear (1996), The Chamber (1996), The Corruptor (1999) and, now, Confidence .

Yet what Confidence may lack in the rich emotions of After Dark, My Sweet , or in the comparative slickness of such scam classics as George Roy Hill’s The Sting (1973) and Stephen Frears’ The Grifters (1990), it almost makes up in its kinetic energy and tactical ingenuity. What it shares with most of its predecessors is a sterling cast, in this instance almost entirely male, and the willingness of several talented performers to play against type, with entertainingly comic effect. Dustin Hoffman plays the sleaziest and most evil mob boss ever; Luis Guzmán shows that he can play razor-sharp smart as a crooked cop here as well as he has played befuddled and bewildered characters most of the time elsewhere; and Rachel Weisz demonstrates once again that a beautiful actress in a male action picture can escape playing an out-and-out slut only by playing an accomplished pickpocket (a choice Cameron Diaz wisely made in Martin Scorsese’s Gangs of New York ).

Among the oddities of Confidence is the casting of soft-boiled Edward Burns as Jake Vig, the head con man in a crew of scam artists that also includes inside man Gordo (Paul Giamatti) and shill Big Al (Louis Lombardi). Also on Jake’s payroll are Manzano (Mr. Guzmán) and Whitworth (Donal Logue), two undercover narcotics detectives on the take. Their specialty is storming into the scam scene so as to scare off the mark-in this case, Lionel Dolby (Leland Orser), an accountant who has just been fleeced of thousands of dollars. Unfortunately for Jake, the accountant happens to be working for a fearsome mobster named King (Dustin Hoffman), who has been known to have people murdered for much less than what Jake and his crew have done in stealing money that belonged to him. Sure enough, both the hapless Dolby and Big Al, who is unwisely boastful in barrooms, are quickly dispatched with bulletholes in their skulls delivered by King’s henchmen.

The surviving crew members plead with Jake to do something to get them off the hook, but Jake boldly decides instead to double his take-and also his risks of being rubbed out-by confronting King with a proposition for an even bigger scam involving the gang-connected C.E.O. of a large company. The perilous confrontation takes place while the lecherous King is “auditioning” two bright-eyed, possibly underage teenagers for his strip club. King even makes a pass at the “sweet-faced” Jake-which Jake casually deflects with a consummate skill that manages to impress King, who complains admiringly that he still can’t tell whether or not Jake is lying.

With King’s backing, Jake undertakes his biggest scam to date, one for which he will need a beautiful woman as a decoy. As if by divine providence, he is literally bumped into by Lily (Rachel Weisz), who smiles flirtatiously at him as they disengage. Before she disappears into a restaurant with an escort, Lily gives Jake an over-the-shoulder smile that keeps him staring at her. As he walks away, he pats his pocket and discovers that it has been picked with surgical precision. This is one way of “meeting cute” that’s at least as old as Ernst Lubitsch’s Trouble in Paradise , but Jake is all business as he subsequently recruits Lily as the crew’s decoy.

The final major player in this congested intrigue chooses this pivotal moment to make his appearance as an undercover Customs or F.B.I. agent-or perhaps even another breed of scam artist. Andy Garcia is almost unrecognizable in his character’s makeup as Gunthar Butan, a badge-flashing virtuoso par excellence who succeeds in blackmailing the crooked cops on Jake’s payroll into tipping him off about Jake’s imminent scam. By this time, there are more than a dozen passionately greedy players involved in scams within the scams, shedding real blood and fake blood in their merrily materialistic pursuit.

This is N.Y.U. film school graduate Mr. Jung’s first screenplay, and it’s a promising debut, though the intricacy of its plotting and the arcane details make it a bit too cerebral for the genre.

But in the end, Confidence rises or falls on the persuasiveness of Mr. Burns in a role more suitable for John Cusack. Mr. Burns projects much of the insolence of Mr. Cusack, but little of the saving vulnerability. That there is little chemistry between Mr. Burns and Ms. Weisz is unfortunate, but not fatal for an entertainment as painlessly fast-paced as this exercise in articulate frivolity.

Charming Victor Vargas

Peter Sollett’s Raising Victor Vargas , from his own screenplay, based on a story by Mr. Sollett and Eva Vives, pops up as one of the happier surprises in this woefully unending winter of discontent, both climactically and cinematically. It is warm, generous, courtly, compassionate and humanistic in the best sense. Furthermore, it avoids the coarsening clichés of most Latino and African-American hood flicks. Hence, there are no gangs, no drugs, hardly even any consensual sex.

Yet the film begins on a curiously cruel note with the teenage male protagonist, Victor Vargas, complacently removing his sweatshirt as he prepares to mount a compliant, somewhat obese neighborhood girl. Before he can enter her beseeching arms, he hears a buddy’s voice from the street, yelling for him to come out, then the voice of his nosy stepsister Vicki (Krystal Rodriguez) at the window below, threatening to call pretty, slender Judy (Judy Marle)-on whom Victor has a secret crush-to tell her that Victor has gone to bed with the notorious fat girl upstairs. Victor bounds from the bed to the window to deny the taunting allegations of his buddy and his stepsister. Abandoning the still-pleading fat girl, he rushes downstairs to keep Vicky from calling Judy at any cost, which results in his throwing the telephone out the window. We never see the fat girl again, and she is never even mentioned henceforth.

I am reminded of Igor Stravinsky’s comment that it is easier in music to be interesting with dissonance than with consonance. By the same token, it is easier in movies to be interesting with sourness than with sweetness. If Mr. Sollett’s film had turned out to be a story primarily about the endless humiliations of an obese girl in a sexist society, and of her yearningly unattainable aspirations for a true lover who was not another girl’s reject, we would have had a suitably sour film of victimization and social significance. What we have instead in Mr. Sollett’s film is a light-hearted romance in which no fewer than three couplings are achieved with almost medievally chivalric codes of reverence, restraint and respect.

Hence, when Victor first approaches Judy for a date, she rebuffs him with the explanation that she already has a boyfriend. Later, we learn that her parents’ divorce has left her very insecure to the point that she is unable to commit to any serious relationship. She eventually confesses to Victor that he is her first and only boyfriend, and this confidence in him on her part empowers him to take the first halting steps to manhood.

Much of the intended comic relief in the film from the endlessly breathless and deadly serious courtships is supplied by Victor’s grandmother (Altagracia Guzman), particularly when she drags him to family court because she suspects that he taught his kid brother Nino (Silvestre Rasuk) how to masturbate. But I never laughed at Grandma, an old Dominican woman clinging to the repressive rites of the Catholic Church to preserve her family from the satanic clutches of sex. I marveled instead at how gently and how seriously Mr. Sollett treated this character, who would have been so easy to caricature and ridicule.

One of the most interesting aspects of this film is its accidental ethnicity. The Jewish director grew up in Bensonhurst and wrote his script originally for a mix of Jewish and Italian teenagers-but finding himself based on the Lower East Side of Manhattan with a preponderance of Hispanic applicants at casting calls, he changed the characters to fit the largely Latino neighborhood. I suspect that the distance he felt from his characters actually helped him to be more sensitive to their essential decency as human beings. Oddly, it is often easier to be kinder to the Other than to one’s own people, whom one may know too well, warts and all, with the warts becoming the subject of the film.

Among the other, mostly inexperienced performers are Melonie Diaz, Kevin Rivera, Wilfree Vasquez, Donna Maldonado, Alexander Garcia, Alexandre Garcia and John Ramos. Together with the leads, they form a surprisingly cohesive ensemble despite the lack of wider ambiance forced upon the film by its low budget. Mr. Sollett is to be credited directorially for knowing when to turn up the emotional heat with climactic closeups when they count for everything. Raising Victor Vargas is a stunning rebuke to all the high-priced pabulum being dished out by the mainstream studios every week.

Fallacious Fellini

Damian Pettigrew’s Fellini: I’m a Born Liar , in English and Italian with English subtitles by Mr. Pettigrew and Olivier Gal, presents a very limited and limiting view of the film artist whose massively influential achievements in the cinema gave rise to the adjective “Fellini-esque,” denoting an accumulation of grotesque pictorial details, primarily of wildly grimacing facial expressions more suited to circus performers and the mentally disturbed than for the less histrionic look of “normal” existence. For some reason (perhaps pertaining to copyrights), Mr. Pettigrew suggests that Fellini’s career began and virtually ended with 81 ¼ 2 (1963). There is almost nothing shown from his pre– La Dolce Vita (1960) period, which I much prefer to his post– La Dolce Vita period, just as I prefer Ingmar Bergman’s work before Persona (1966) to his work after. Just call me an unreconstructed classicist and let it go at that. The interviews are mostly with Fellini himself in a manner more introspective than expansive. In short, the film is all about him and no one else, except perhaps his wife and most cherished icon, Giulietta Masina, as well as the characters in his late films and the actors who played them-most notably Donald Sutherland in Fellini’s Casanova (1976) and Terence Stamp in the “Toby Dammit” episode from Histoires Extraordinaires (1967), two very marginal efforts in his overall career. There’s a mordant tone to the interviews, as Fellini (1920-1993) seemed to feel himself very close to death, albeit as a world-famous celebrity who was free to indulge in mock self-deprecation to feed his overweening egocentricity.

I met Fellini once for an interview, and I was a little surprised when he praised Ronald Reagan, but then I realized that he had been in the gunsights of the influential Italian Communists ever since the 50′s, when his films were denounced for betraying the socially conscious heritage of neorealism, especially in such films as Rossellini’s Open City (1945) and Paisan (1946), and De Sica’s Shoe Shine (1946) and The Bicycle Thief (1947). Fellini was a great talent nonetheless-and at his best, very funny.