Director : Gregory Jacobs
Screenplay : Gregory Jacobs and Sam Lowry (based on a by Fabián Bielinsky)
MPAA Rating : R
Year of Release : 2004
Stars : John C. Reilly (Richard Gaddis), Diego Luna (Rodrigo), Maggie Gyllenhaal (Valerie Gaddis), Jonathan Tucker(Michael Gaddis), Peter Mullan (Wiliam Hannigan), Zitto Kazann (Ochoa)
Con artist movies live and die by two things: the cleverness and believability of the con and the characters trying to pull it off. The reigning king of the genre is, of course, playwright and filmmaker David Mamet, whose name always appears in any writing on con games and stories about them (see—I couldn’t get to the second sentence of this review without evoking him). Mamet’s con game tales are mesmerizing not only because the grifts he imagines are so wonderfully intricate and exhilarating in the way they unfold before our eyes, but also because he draws compelling characters whose lives are defined by the cons in which they engage.
Gregory Jacob’s Criminal, which is a mostly faithful remake of a well-received 2001 Argentinean film called Nine Queens, attempts to do something similar, but falls short. Consummate character actor John C. Reilly, who usually plays good-hearted, but often dim-witted schlubs (see, for example, The Goods Girl or Boogie Nights) , goes against type playing Richard Gaddis, a professional grifter who has clearly done well enough for himself to afford a pristine new Mercedes and an expensive suit.
Early in the film, he takes under his wing a young con-artist-in-training named Rodrigo (Diego Luna), whose scruffy chin and untucked shirt mark him as distinctly different from Richard. Even though they are essentially playing the same game, they are at totally different levels. Not only does Richard play for higher stakes (Rodrigo is willing to risk getting caught just to pull off a $50 switch scam with waitresses at a casino), but he’s utterly and completely cynical about both his career and his life. He’s in it for the money and nothing else; trust is just a tool he can use to get what he wants, and he has virtually no sentimental attachments to anything. Rodrigo, on the other hand, is pulling scams to earn enough money to help his sick father pay off debts to some Russian mobsters. Thus, his pursuit of swindled money is tinged with a genuine need.
After a few small-time scams, none of which are particularly believable, Richard and Rodrigo stumble upon a six-figure deal that has to go down that day. An old associate of Richard’s (Zitto Kazann) needs him to close a deal to sell a forged piece of rare American currency to a crass media mogul (Peter Mullan) who, for tax reasons, has to leave the country the next day. All of this ends up going down at the Biltmore, the fancy Los Angeles hotel where Richard’s estranged and very angry sister, Valerie (Maggie Gyllenhaal), works as a concierge.
First-time director Gregory Jacobs is a longtime associate of Steven Soderbergh’s, having worked as an assistant director on virtually all of Soderbergh’s films since 1993’s King of the Hill. He gives Criminal a slightly off-kilter, handheld vibe that is clearly intended to set it apart, but instead just lumps it in with every other film that wants to look “independent.” The screenplay, penned by Jacobs and Soderbergh (writing under the Psycho-derived pseudonym Sam Lowry), has some interesting ideas and clearly wants to humanize the mechanics of the con game, but it never quite gels. Richard and Rodrigo, despite their similar names, are cast as polar opposites, and it seems that the thrust of the film will be the thawing of Richard’s cold, always professional exterior via Rodrigo’s innate humanity (at one point, Richard tells Rodrigo that he has the one asset that can’t be learned: a face people can trust).
For a while, this works, and Reilly and Luna make an intriguing odd couple, even if we constantly find ourselves questioning the plausibility of their cons and the convenience of their happening to meet on this particular day. Yet, even when the emotional aspect of the story starts to work, it is ultimately undermined by a final twist that casts everything in a wholly different light and effectively kills the emotional involvement the movie had been coaxing us with. Granted, that may be part of the master plan; perhaps Criminal is meant to be a meta-meditation on the ways in which the cinema can so easily draw us into caring about characters who in real life we wouldn’t want to have anything to do with. That, however, is probably giving it too much credit, and the twist finale is likely just that—something to make you raise your eyebrows and applaud the cleverness of the filmmakers. Unfortunately, it’s not that clever and we’ve seen it all before.
Copyright ©2004 James Kendrick
All images copyright ©2004 Focus Features