Money for nothing


Edward Burns, left, gets a tie-straightening from the more vertically challenged Dustin Hoffman.

Edward Burns, left, gets a tie-straightening from the more vertically challenged Dustin Hoffman.

Rated 3.0

In Confidence, Edward Burns plays Jake Vig, a veteran grifter with boyish good looks. Con games seem to come naturally to him; in an early scene, he retrieves messages from several different women on his answering machine. Each woman is in some stage of anticipation, disappointment or exasperation with Jake, and each calls him by a different name.

But that’s not the first glimpse we get of this man. Before that, we see him wrapping up one of his scams—faking a murder so the mark will panic and bolt, leaving a suitcase full of money behind. Even earlier, in the very first shot, before the series of flashbacks that make up most of the movie, we see Jake in a dark alley, lying in a pool of blood. In a voiceover, he explains helpfully: “So, I’m dead.” Anyone who’s seen Billy Wilder’s Sunset Boulevard doesn’t have to be told that this latest scam doesn’t look like it’s going to end well for Jake.

For that matter, it seems the previous one didn’t end all that well, either. The suitcase of money we see being left behind by the panicky mark buys Jake and his cohorts more trouble than any of them bargain for. Within a day or two, both the mark and one of Jake’s partners turn up dead. It seems the mark was playing Jake’s game with money that wasn’t his. In fact, the money Jake has grifted belonged to a local entrepreneur known as “the King” (Dustin Hoffman). The exact nature of the King’s business is never really explained, but we know it must be unsavory because he conducts it in a dimly lit bar liberally decorated with scantily clad women whose profession involves a lot of rubbing up against poles, customers and each other.

But Jake is nothing if not a gambler, and he convinces the King to consider his lost money an investment in Jake’s next big score. In this one, the mark will be Morgan Price (Robert Forster), a Wall Street banker with experience laundering money for the mob; Jake’s idea is to make Price’s next trip to the laundry—well, a trip to the cleaners, if you get my drift. Filling out the crew of Jake’s scam are the survivors of his previous team, Gordo (Paul Giamatti) and Miles (Brian Van Holt); a sultry femme fatale named Lily (Rachel Weisz), a newcomer who first attracted Jake’s attention by picking his pocket; and another newcomer, Lupus (Franky G.), a henchman of the King’s who tags along mainly to protect his boss’s investment.

Rounding out the cluttered cast are two crooked Los Angeles cops, Whitworth (Donal Logue) and Manzano (Luis Guzmán), who have worked with Jake before but are out to double-cross him this time, and a scruffy federal agent named Gunther Butan (Andy Garcia, looking like the tail end of a five-day binge) with an old score to settle with Jake. And finally, there’s Travis (Morris Chestnut) as an associate of Price’s, whom we first see in that alley getting ready to execute Jake. But first, as the audience’s proxy, he wants to know the whole story, so Jake gives it to him in a flashback. Sadly, this means Chestnut has little to do but stand around with a gun in his hand, saying, “Yeah? And then what happened?”

Doug Jung’s script takes place in a universe where The Sting (1973) was never made. If it had been, Jake’s cons would never work because somewhere during the game, the mark would say, “Hey, wait a minute. Didn’t I see this in an old movie once?” It takes place in a universe where Quentin Tarantino (with his juggled chronology) and David Mamet (with his flair for snazzy, preening dialogue) were never born. Jung’s plot, for all its fussy, complicated twists and turns, never surprises. Every new development comes exactly when we expect it and goes exactly where we thought it would. Seldom has a movie dragged more red herrings across our path to so little effect.

Director James Foley and his actors give Jung’s overwrought and artificial monkey business the kind of crackling energy it needs but hardly deserves. Confidence dresses itself up in some pretty old clothes, but they can still look pretty sharp on people who know how to wear them.