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Overall Rating

Awesome: 15.07%
Worth A Look28.77%
Average: 26.03%
Pretty Bad: 27.4%
Total Crap: 2.74%

6 reviews, 37 user ratings

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by Jack Sommersby

"Director James Foley Scores Again"
5 stars

Think you've had it with con-artist films? Think again.

There's a particularly stunning scene at about the midway mark in the excellent con-artist extravaganza Confidence. To lay a bit of story foundation here, smooth Armani/Rolex-wearing con artist Jake Vig (played by Edward Burns) has brought along his sexy partner in crime, Lily (Rachel Weisz), to an upscale strip club owned by a sleazy L.A. crime kingpin known as the King (Dustin Hoffman). Jake is working a con for the King, whom he unknowingly ripped off a week before in conning a man he didn't know to be his accountant out of $150,000; to make amends, Jake is set to embezzle $2 million from high-echelon money launderer Morgan Price (Robert Forster) through a phony banking transaction. While the King is sickly looking and runt-ish, Jake is handsome and tall, but also cocksure, and he makes the mistake of barging into the club to bully the King into getting off his back with whatever weight he thinks he carries, and The King adversely responds. Now, in a more traditional film, a scene like this would dwindle down to a profanity-laden shouting match and perhaps a busted kneecap thrown in for good measure. But the screenwriter, George Jung, and the director, James Foley, haven't opted for the easy way out. Foley keeps the camera in close, but not too close, and he relies on Hoffman's magnificent combination of imagination and technique to carry the scene over. The King may be a sleaze, but he's highly intelligent -- and also sexually rancid. He starts to feel up Lily, very slowly, very deliberately, right in back of his henchmen and right in front of Jake; it's as revolting a depiction of a violation of a woman's body as you're likely to see sans forceful penetration. Then the King, who's also sexually ambiguous, moves onto Jake, gets his face as close to his as possible, proceeds to caution him on just how mortal a danger he has placed himself in, and, knowing that his point's been made, administers three bottom-palm blows to Jake's forehead, which seem as powerful as blows to the solar plexus. Hoffman's perfectly controlled, understated sense of menace is terrifying; his King doesn't need to shout to intimidate, only to calmly insinuate, because, runt-ish or not, he oozes as much innate ruthlessness as he does sleaze. (It's the best scene of its kind since Morgan Freeman's classic scissors-wielding one in 1987's Street Smart.)

Hoffman's working at the top of his game here -- but, then, so is everybody else. Especially James Foley, who proves once again that he's our greatest American director. Always one who fares best in cinematic terrain involving unsavory characters, the director of the unheralded classics At Close Range and After Dark, My Sweet wound up helming the best David Mamet-scripted film with 1992's Glengarry Glen Ross; he even managed to inject some lyricism into it to help make up for the fact that you were basically watching a film about a bunch of angst-ridden machismos. With Confidence, not only has he made the best con-artist film, period, but it's such an astonishing piece of work you feel not another con-artist film need ever be made again, period. Mamet's House of Games and The Spanish Prisoner are considered among the best of this sub-genre, yet, while entertaining, their lead protagonists weren't particularly interesting (perhaps because they weren't really characters, just cookie-cutter ciphers, so we could see the cons play out from someone not in on them), the dialogue groaningly self-conscious ("Oh, you're a bad pony, and I'm not gonna bet on you."), and not paced swiftly enough (you had too much downtime to foresee the gist of the cons a good zip code or two ahead of the wide-eyed protagonists). But Mamet's biggest fault was his inability to lend a visual interpretation to the material -- his scripts benefited little from his directing them, so they were weighted down by staginess, even if they weren't adaptations of his stage plays. With the action in Glengarry confined mostly to a real-estate office and Chinese restaurant, Foley was faced with the impossibility of convincing audiences they weren't watching a filmed stage play; but with the invaluable help of his frequent collaborator, ace cinematographer Juan Ruiz Anchia, the interiors possessed a delicious film noir-ish lighting that we could respond to, while another Foley regular, editor Howard E. Smith, juxtaposed the scenes with an adroitness that generated momentum, with Foley himself using the camera very dexterously and actively but never obtrusively, so the audience felt as if they were active participants in the goings-on. It's where Foley thrives and Mamet dives that makes quite the difference in Confidence.

The smart, snazzy screenplay by first-timer George Jung is hardly original in either structure (it's narrated in flashbacks by Jake a la Sunset Blvd.) or plot (the quest is to steal lots of moola, with complications from other con artists and crooked cops figuring in), yet what we're not prepared for is how well the familiarities are given unexpected layers and witty spins. When Jake educates Lily (who's mastered only the art of pickpocketing) on the power of trust by establishing some with a stranger in a jewelry store by insisting he's an ex-Ivy League-schoolmate of the man's daughter so he can get this "mark" to take his check for the cost of a necklace that the store clerk won't sell him, he actually follows the con all the way through, leaving the store with the necklace, the man with a bogus check, and a smile on his face over dazzling Lily with his expertise. It's similar to the Western Union scene in House of Games, but there the mark wasn't taken -- the con was abandoned as soon as it was proven that trust was established -- where the mark here actually is, and it's this willingness on the part of the filmmakers to populate the proceedings with all-around anti-heroes that gives it gravitas, rootedness, a sense of authenticity that isn't compromised by misplaced compassion. There's more. A shady federal agent on the take doesn't predictably dress in a wardrobe beyond his legal means; he's clad in thrift-store suits and a butt-ugly tie. When the two on-the-take cops who abet Jake are coerced by the fed to turn against him, the first thing one of them worries about is the prospect of not being able to pay for his daughter's braces. A henchman of The King's, who's been depicted as a myopic blowhard, amazes Jake's crew during an important business dinner by blurting out an impressive financial reasoning why future investments can still be wise. A crew member's sanitary issue with public toilets doesn't go the American Pie-scatological route, but instead figures in as an integral part of the con. And in a possible sly ribbing of those deadly dull robbery sequences in Mamet's Heist and The Score, no ladders, ropes, security alarms, and the like are involved -- just a single finger depressing a single computer key from thousands of miles from where the money actually is.

Foley knows not to play things too straight. He's not really interested in the cons as much as he is the style and confidence needed to pull them off. What Mamet doesn't realize, and what Foley does, is that audiences wise to conventions in a particular sub-genre don't need them presented to us in a plain-Jane manner; we know the logistics involved in elaborate cinema cons are extensive but don't necessarily hold up to too much scrutiny, as is the case with the main con artists' twenty/twenty foresight in predicting the exact actions of everyone involved in the cons. Where Mamet invests too much dogged faith in tired tricks -- he foolishly believes they're ever-timely and irresistible to audiences, as Mel Brooks used to with urination jokes -- Foley is acutely attuned to not only what will play, but how it should play. Granted, Jung has done a remarkable job of keeping all of the twists and turns of the plot cohesive and in a cohesive order, but Foley hasn't overrelied on these to carry the whole show as Mamet naively does -- he wants you to respond to the film visually as well as intellectually. He serves up the same brand of high style Jake uses to keep his marks off-kilter: the stylish camerabatics that employ everything from swish-pans to wipes to unorthodox angles; the ungodly delicious cinematography by Anchia, with its twenty-color-gel lighting scheme; the rat-a-tat editing by Stuart Levy; all perfectly serve the material rather than detract from it. Foley is that rare director who can install a film with full-throttle narrative velocity without seeming to rush things; he knows the story isn't going to hold up to much scrutiny, and he doesn't give the audience the chance to ponder over the built-in implausibilities inherent in con-artist films. Yet the visuals and editing never come as uncouth or self-adored -- they're bold and controlled, while, at the same time, are orgiastic to where they manage to give the audience a filmgoing high. They also mirror Jake's usage of style as a tactful offense: he coats everything he says and does with it, and it misleads The King into thinking he's nothing more than a pretty boy with an attitude, when in fact it's a facade shrouding a shrewd intellect that's always thinking, always anticipating. (When The King tells Jake, "Sometimes, style can get you killed," you can sense Jake having to restrain himself from smirking.)

This is the best-directed, -photographed, and -edited film since last year's phenomenal The Mothman Prophecies, which was directed by Mark Pellington, who, like Foley, started his career out in music videos. Film directors with this background usually emphasize sensationalism over coherence, and concern themselves more with the visuals than the characters or story. Not these two. What's amazing about their style is that it's visually unorthodox and daring yet it never manages to overshadow the characters nor overburden the story. Martin Scorsese is commonly hailed as our best American director, but, while his visual and pacing senses are sharp, he commonly overscales his films to where they end up disproportioned due to the underdeveloped characters clashing with the grandioseness of the presentation, and he loses dramatic threads and their foci too often and easily. The characters in Foley's and Pellington's films are beautifully realized and always seem to be serving a dramatic function, even if the screenwriter hasn't paid half the attention to them that the directors do. Perhaps it's no accident that given Foley's enormous respect for actors, he's managed to elicit career-best performances from Sean Penn and Jason Patric, and from lesser actors Chris O'Donnell, Mark Wahlberg, and Chow Yun-Fat. Edward Burns can now be added to this list. Unlike most of my colleagues, I haven't had much of a problem with Burns in the past. He doesn't have a lot of range, but he's appealingly lightweight and likable. If he had a nagging flaw, it was his timidity: he seemed to be holding back, as if he didn't trust himself and was afraid to try things, so he came off as kind of bland and inaccessible. How fitting it is, then, that in a film titled Confidence, Burns is absolutely teeming with it. Foley has helped him develop his wonderful voice with power of inflection and of phrase; when he talks to an adversary, he injects a good deal of irony into his tone, and you can believe it when The King tells him it's hard to know when he's lying. Burns also uses his body more expressively, which is a dire necessity in playing a man who's almost always giving some kind of performance. And he manages to hold his own with Hoffman; they're certainly not equals, but his undeniable charisma positively glows here, and he never falls into the trap of mistaking smugness for arrogance. (No director loves actors more than James Foley.)

Confidence is the kind of film you want to shout and hoot and holler about to anyone who'll listen. It's mammothly entertaining yet burdened by the preconception that it's "just another con-artist film", regardless of the fact that a good many films released as of late have been "heist" rather than "con-artist" films -- there's a difference. It also doesn't have the star-studded cast that the tiresome Ocean's Eleven remake boasted, even though it's alarmingly well-cast with Burns, Hoffman, Weisz, Forster, Andy Garcia (as the fed), Luis Guzman (as one of the crooked cops) and Brian Van Holt (as one of Jake's crew). And it's also devoid of a sense of shame -- the characters make no apologies for how they make their lives -- so it's got little appeal for the masses who like their characters of the either/or variety. Confidence doesn't take itself more seriously than need be, so it sidesteps being viewed as having wound up less clever in the end than it purported to be. The filmmakers care more about the characters and the tensions and affections in their relationships than every last-minute detail to their cons; they provide just enough information before going onto something else. It's a brave film that mocks its sub-genre while relying on some of the same conventions that come with its territory. And it's for these reasons that Confidence takes a place alongside such treasures as Clint Eastwood's High Plains Drifter, Brian De Palma's Blow Out, and Robert Altman's The Player in transcending its sub-genre with a feverently passionate filmmaker's vision. If Foley's last film, the badly scripted 1999 crime drama The Corruptor, was the least personal one he'd ever made, it's nice to know his four-year hiatus allowed him to choose a project that really meant something to him. No director can make a film as hugely enjoyable as this without wholeheartedly believing in it. Confidence may not be a "personal" film, like, say, Cameron Crowe's Almost Famous, or a dream project like Scorsese's Gangs of New York, but it speaks innumerable volumes about its director's formidable strengths and his pure love for cinema. With so many wretched films boasting catchy story ideas and little in the way of witty development, something like Confidence, which takes on a familiar story and ends up making something dazzingly original out of it, deserves to be declared the masterpiece that it is. Welcome back, Mr. Foley.


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originally posted: 05/05/03 10:09:20
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OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2003 Sundance Film Festival. For more in the 2003 Sundance Film Festival series, click here.
OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2003 Philadelphia Film Festival. For more in the 2003 Philadelphia Film Festival series, click here.

User Comments

12/29/17 morris campbell good con artist movie 4 stars
12/25/09 art YOU"D HAVE TO BE A CROOK,TO LIKE THIS MESS! 1 stars
6/16/09 Monday Morning I love caper films - this wasn't the best but IS worth watching. VERY stylish! 4 stars
5/16/07 Bitchflaps Too self-consciously slick for its own good, screenplay contrivances are obvious too. 2 stars
2/21/05 Agent Sands Not the 1st to conquer its premise or characters but it's sure great anyway. Badass finale! 5 stars
10/02/04 monica it's okay for a con artist movie 3 stars
8/06/04 Mark D Only Weisz is strong in this movie 3 stars
5/19/04 FrankB perhaps too stylish, but Hoffman is great 3 stars
2/01/04 Ingo Entertaining popcorn flick with flaws. 3 stars
1/03/04 Faith Only Rachel Weisz delivers a great performance in this bad film 2 stars
10/26/03 Zaharin Hamid aka The Movie Samseng A wicked SCAM movie. James Foley is the MAN! 4 stars
8/21/03 Kim Not even the great performance of Rachel Weisz could save this film. 2 stars
7/24/03 Ben Rutherford Excellent, Fun, Great Cast 5 stars
7/22/03 Mr Mayer Other than the good perrformace of Rachel Weisz, the movie is not really worth it. 2 stars
6/26/03 Arlene Titshaw I did like OCEAN'S 11 pretty well, Wolf, but NOT this one. 2 stars
6/17/03 Ed Only Rachel Weisz and Dustin Hoffman come out on top in a con that's not worth it. 3 stars
6/05/03 Erik Van Sant This overlooked crime caper is the coolest flick around. 5 stars
5/11/03 Steve Ellis Out of the good cast, Only Dustin Hoffman and Rachel Weisz do well with what is givin. 3 stars
5/10/03 Wolf The "love scene" should have been left out, but if you liked Ocean's11 you'll like this one 4 stars
5/09/03 joey rome roll with it 4 stars
5/05/03 John Fine but flawed crime movie taken up a notch by a stand out performance by Rachel Weisz 4 stars
5/04/03 Edler Was basically a combo of all the previous grifter/con-man movies of the past 10 years 3 stars
5/02/03 Charlie Udon Good, Not Great. Agree with the majority, Rachel Weisz and Dustin Hoffman stole the show. 3 stars
5/02/03 Nancy Niedzielski I think Weisz was one of the best things in the movie, and she was awful. 'Nuff said? 3 stars
4/30/03 Jack Sommersby An American masterpiece that confirms James Foley as our greatest director. 5 stars
4/30/03 Ross Good caper with Rachel Weisz as the highlight of the whole film 3 stars
4/29/03 Andrew Carden Hoffman & Weisz Give Superb Performances In This Limp, Contrived Action Flick. 3 stars
4/28/03 Kelly I Loved it.... especially Ed Burns, he makes the movie !!!!!!! 5 stars
4/27/03 mike Entertaining, good, funny. The F-word gets used a bit much though. 4 stars
4/26/03 asfdfds fsaddsfafds 1 stars
4/21/03 Paige Top Notch Cast with scene stealing Dustin and Rachel as the highlights of the movie. 4 stars
4/15/03 Dead Ringers FX Rule! The actors and filmmaking were nice. Pretty weak story. Good twist on undeveloped story. 2 stars
4/07/03 Ben Dustin Hoffman and Rachel Weisz Steal The show is this well crafted film. 4 stars
4/05/03 Frank Thomas Sorry, But Rachel Weisz Was the best thing in this so so movie. 2 stars
4/05/03 Jeff Smith Ok, Not great 3 stars
1/23/03 Sean Typical hiest movie that adds nothing to the genre 3 stars
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  25-Apr-2003 (R)
  DVD: 20-Jul-2004



Directed by
  James Foley

Written by
  Doug Jung

  Edward Burns
  Rachel Weisz
  Dustin Hoffman
  Andy Garcia
  Paul Giamatti
  Luis Guzmán

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