Mira Nair’s Can-Do Golddigger

Reese Witherspoon is as modishly contemporary as a Palm Pilot with a Duracell battery. Watching her play scheming, flirtatious 19th-century golddigger Becky Sharp in the latest of a long line of movie adaptations (four that I know about) of William Makepeace Thackeray’s classic novel Vanity Fair is so disconcerting that I kept staring at the hemlines of her boned corsets to see if I could detect a pair of protruding pink Uggs. She’s the only American in the cast, which is both a blessing and a curse. Waltzing through a suet pudding of stuffy accents and hammy British tricks from the Royal Academy acting school, she is at once completely out of place and the best thing in the movie. She’s got the kind of spunk everyone else in Vanity Fair could do with a lot more of.

Miriam Hopkins splashed her way recklessly through the role in the 1935 version, Becky Sharp , the first complete feature-length film ever processed in the revolutionary new three-strip Technicolor. Reams of copy were filed about director Rouben Mamoulian’s tints and hues, while the movie itself was roundly snubbed as episodic, jerky and disappointing. Nothing much has changed. Indian director Mira Nair ( Monsoon Wedding ) has made a cinematically impressive, beautifully photographed but dramatically tedious epic in which Thackeray’s skewered satire of British social pariahs veers dangerously in the direction of burlesque. So overpopulated is its canvas, so vast is its reach, that the plot becomes almost meaningless. From a London orphanage in 1802, through Brussels in the Napoleonic wars, to the final shot of the delectable Ms. Witherspoon riding through India on an elephant with yet another in her endless stream of lovers, director Nair follows the busy style of the low-budget Monsoon Wedding . Clearly, there’s a lot going on. But when the ratio was smaller, the style seemed more fluid. The narrative here is just sleepwalking. It’s static and earthbound-a dull procession of long shots, medium shots and close-ups, shrilly punctured by a dull cacophony of babbling dialogue that only occasionally rings true. It’s lavish but lulling, and at two hours and 18 minutes, it’s something of a bore.

Headstrong and willful, determined to equal men at the risk of being judged a bit of a slut, Becky may have been an early feminist, but she has always emerged as a great deal less than lovable. Miriam Hopkins knew how to play strident, irritating and powerfully seductive at the same time; the endearing Ms. Witherspoon just looks badly dressed and uncomfortable. Her purity and sweetness are wasted in red curly wigs, and no way was her petite décolletage designed to stretch itself torturously into the kind of Empire waistlines favored by Madame DuBarry. Fueled by ambition, she turns social climbing into a cottage industry, dancing the minuet through the servants’ quarters to a titled position in the aristocracy, decimating friends, foes, fiancés, simpering fops, snobby soldiers, poor noblemen, rich bourgeois lechers and even her loving husband and children. Alas, as the people in her life all meet with one misfortune after another, Becky survives, benefits and rises to a happy ending with the flick of her nosegay. Or at least Ms. Witherspoon does. Cursed, snubbed, patronized, cruelly rejected, she is more self-serving than self-sacrificing, but in this movie she is always forgivable. Even when she destroys her warm, devoted and faithful husband, Rawdon Crawley (an excellent performance by James Purefoy)-the only man in her queue of conquests who has loved her unconditionally-feminist director Nair makes sure her feminist star shines through her tears with the radiant can-do Elle Woods charm her fans expect. Thus, what emerges is a Becky who suffers from no condition more psychologically daunting than beauty without breeding. When he created this scheming little tramp in 1848, I seriously doubt if William Makepeace Thackeray ever envisioned Becky Sharp as Lorelei Lee.

Still, there is much to admire here. From the Dickensian horrors of the orphanage to the chandeliers and candelabras of Belgian ballrooms to the casinos of Baden-Baden, the locations are a treat, even if there are far too many of them. If there is nothing as memorable as the scene in the 1935 film where Rouben Mamoulian shattered the fancy-dress ball in Brussels with the explosion of Napoleon’s cannons outside, at least we are spared the Battle of Waterloo. Too bad we were not also spared the pointless, idiotic musical number extraneously inserted by Mira Nair as homage to her Asian roots, with poor Ms. Witherspoon forced to do a clumsy and embarrassing belly dance like Madonna in Bollywood. But randy appearances by Eileen Atkins, Jim Broadbent, Bob Hoskins, Rhys Ifans, Geraldine McEwan and Jonathan Rhys-Meyers add flavor to a bland broth, and Ms. Witherspoon carries her own weight throughout. Vanity Fair is O.K. fodder for Masterpiece Theatre mavens, but as golddiggers go, I prefer Scarlett O’Hara, Forever Amber and Betty Grable.

Hustlers in Hollywood

Best of all the new films is Criminal , a breathless and dazzling caper that knocks your socks off, based on the Argentine hit Nine Queens . Chronicling 24 hours in the lives of two small-potato Hollywood scam artists, it provides both the terrific, cheddar-faced John C. Reilly (who stopped the show in Chicago singing “Mister Cellophane”) and the kinetic young Mexican actor Diego Luna ( Y Tu Mamá También ) with their first above-title starring roles in a mainstream feature. They’ve been practicing.

At 9:30 a.m., Mr. Luna-a scruffy kid with street charm-gets arrested for pulling the old “change for $100″ scam on a casino waitress. But Mr. Reilly, the arresting officer from the LAPD vice squad who drags him away in handcuffs, is an even bigger crook who is looking for a new partner. In what follows, you get a tutorial in the psychology of the ultimate hustle, and get to know two likable, nonviolent crooks who are as innocent and gullible as their victims. “This is not some summer job,” warns the old con, and the young rookie becomes his devoted pupil. When the opportunity of a lifetime falls into their laps in the form of a no-fail six-figure score involving a priceless 1878 U.S. Treasury bill, they land in lucky honey-until they start distrusting each other and fall into the clutches of the rest of L.A.’s criminal underground. Proving the lie to the theory that you can’t con a con, everyone cheats and betrays everyone else, there’s a wild plot twist every hour of the day, and nobody is who or what they seem. Between traps and ambushes, Mr. Reilly picks up his dry cleaning, argues with his duplicitous sister (Maggie Gyllenhaal), who runs a four-star hotel, and enforces his own ethics and rules (No guns! No soft drinks in his $60,000 automobile!) with unintended hilarity. As each aspect of their cleverness collapses, the sage and the apprentice sink deeper into their own quicksand until the final fraud, which is fresh, inspired, totally unexpected and shocking enough to spit-curl a buck private’s crew cut.

Criminal is a power-driven vehicle that perfectly balances Mr. Reilly’s cool, laid-back cruise control with Mr. Luna’s youthful intensity and feral, unjaded energy. The film has been carefully directed and solidly written by Steven Soderbergh’s longtime assistant director, Gregory Jacobs (making his directing debut, with a co-writing credit for one “Sam Lowry,” a pseudonym for Mr. Soderbergh himself). Unlike most Soderbergh films, this one actually makes sense. After collaborating on such garbage spills as Solaris and Full Frontal , they completed this neat little winner on a low budget and a 30-day shooting schedule, focusing on narrative coherence and character development instead of just showing off. The payoff is a mind-tripping knockout.

Thrill Me? Kill Me!

Wicker Park is a shapeless mess in which toy boy Josh Hartnett makes another fatal attempt to prove he can compete with real actors in some show-biz arena more serious than the covers of teenage fan magazines. This alleged thriller is so distanced from any genuine thrill that I am not sure I can even do its head-scratching plot justice. Mr. Hartnett, who looks like the star of a high-school track meet, plays Matt, a New York photographer who, for some unexplained reason, has ended up in Chicago working for his girlfriend’s brother in a high-tech advertising agency. He has never sold anything more valuable than a stick of gum, but suddenly he has been chosen to fly to China to sign up a world-shaking company for reasons that are never explained. He hates flying. He also hates his job, but love is everything. Or is it? Suddenly he’s in the men’s room of a restaurant, where he overhears the voice of an old girlfriend named Lisa (Diane Kruger) who broke his heart and disappeared from his life two years ago, for reasons that are never explained. He misses his flight to Shanghai and stalks her to a room at the Drake Hotel where she is checked in for one night, for reasons that are never explained. He falls asleep in her bed and steals her compact. Cut to a flashback. Matt and Lisa meet in a shoe store owned by his wimpy best friend, Luke (Matthew Lillard). They walk through a Chicago snowstorm talking about tropical fish. (Would I make up these things?) Their favorite meeting place is in a neighborhood called Wicker Park, next to a chili-dog stand. Every time they go there, it is always snowing. They never buy a chili dog.

Cut to the present. Matt drives all over Chicago looking for Lisa, and no matter where he ends up, he always finds an empty parking space. He also finds a key and breaks into her apartment. Lisa comes home but it’s not the Lisa he once knew, not the Lisa he’s been stalking. This Lisa has the same name, same perfume, but she’s been stalking him! She’s really an actress named Alex, who’s been dating the likable but hopelessly unlucky-at-love Luke. Meanwhile, between trips to O’Hare to upgrade his ticket to Shanghai for flights he always misses, Matt has no home, for reasons that are never explained, so he sleeps with Lisa No. 2, who pretends to be a hospital nurse, for reasons that are never explained. She is also a friend of the real Lisa, who apparently lives across the alley and is always crawling into her window through the fire escape for reasons … must I go on? Since nobody knows where anyone is, everyone keeps leaving messages on cell phones (except the people from Matt’s office, who never think to call China, or the executives in China, who never think to call Chicago). It starts snowing. Everyone is forced to suffer through a nonsensical avant-garde play starring Lisa No. 2 that Charles Ludlam would have used for toilet paper. Have you had enough? It all ends up on the floor of a crowded terminal at O’Hare, where Lisa No. 1 misses her flight to London to join a touring company of Cabaret , for reasons that are never … hell, you get the picture. I wish I did. Why doesn’t Matt just go home? Where has Lisa No. 1 been all this time? What does Lisa No. 2 want with Lisa No. 1? Why is Josh Hartnett afraid to take his clothes off in bed? Are they all psychos? Nothing whatsoever makes the slightest bit of sense in Wicker Park . L’Appartement , the French thriller from which it has been stolen-er, adapted-had a murder mystery as its centerpiece. This truncated version, ineptly directed by Paul McGuigan (who made the medieval religious-hysteria bomb The Reckoning ) and confusingly written by Brandon Boyce (who penned the infinitely superior Apt Pupil ), has no murder, although it is murder to sit through. There’s not much of a mystery, either, except the puzzle of why anybody wanted to make it in the first place. The acting is uniformly vapid. The brunette Lisa is Australia’s Rose Byrne, who played the oversexed Briseis opposite Brad Pitt’s Playgirl centerfold in Troy . The blond Lisa is Germany’s Diane Kruger, who appeared in the same epic as Helen, the face that launched a thousand ships, but who, in Wicker Park , just looks like she’d like to hop the next freighter out of town. Neither of them are as pretty as Josh Hartnett, who appears only slightly less unintentionally funny than he did as a miscast hip-hop Iago in O , or as a pilot who looked 14 years old in Pearl Harbor. But if this dud proves that thrillers don’t always thrill, Mr. Hartnett proves that camera-ready hunks who need acting lessons aren’t always ready for the camera.