The con is on, yet again. The con never seems to be off these days. Good, though.
It seems that a new Hollywood trend has formed, allowing perennial supporting cast stalwarts the opportunity to stand centre stage in a movie involving tricks, scams and deceptions. Edward Burns and Rachel Weisz gain some Confidence while Bill Macy winds up in The Cooler, leaving the way clear for John C. Reilly to prove he's a Criminal. It's often commented that you'll know Reilly's face even if you can't place the name, which made his turn in the surprisingly-not-unbearable Chicago belting out 'Mr. Cellophane' all the more poignant. Not to say that he's suffering from a lack of recognition, Oscar nominations tend to satiate that aspect, but certainly at theOneliner we were looking forward to seeing him in a mainstream starring role. While the results aren't going to redefine cinema or do anything you've not seen before (particularly if you've seen Fabian Bielinsky's 2000 movie Nueve reinas on which this is based), it gives a polished, enjoyable narrative with occasional moments of depth that proves rather pleasing.
Richard Gaddis (Reilly) happens upon the errant youth Rodrigo (Diego Luna) pulling scams on waitresses in a casino until he's rumbled. Posing as a copper Gaddis escorts him out and generously offers him a chance to partner with him in his life of cons. Initially reluctant, he eventually agrees and soon winds up involved in a serendipitously arrived scheme to sell a phony rare bank note to billionaire media mogul William Hannigan (Peter Mullan, unexpectedly. Not a man renowned for appearing in glossy Hollywood efforts) after the forger Ochoa (Zito Kazann) falls ill. Minor complications arise from the action having to take place in a tight timeframe and in a hotel where the concierge has declared Gaddis persona non grata. That concierge happening to be Gaddis' sister, Valerie (Maggie Gyllenhaal).
Nothing in this life is ever simple, and this con proves no exception. The usual complications arise as the thread of the scam grows ever more convoluted and threatens to eat into Rodrigo and Gaddis' profit margin. While Gaddis attempts to show Rodrigo the ropes of his profession he's also letting slip details of his lifestyle, which really don't seem to be particularly worthy of striving for, as well as hints of the reasons his relationship with his sister has deteriorated to the strained level it's currently reached.
None of which I have much of an issue with. The constant jinks and dodges the narrative takes are pretty much par for the course given the nature of the beast, although by the final reel credibility has been stretched to such a degree that it would probably kill the movie stone dead were it not done so gosh darn competently. This may be director Gregory Jacobs first outing in the drivers seat but he's no stranger to riding shotgun. With a list of assistant director credits as long as your arm it's not too surprising to find out that he knows how to keep things barreling along snappily enough. As a long time Stephen Soderburgh collaborator he seems to have picked up a few of his stylistic tips along the way, although thankfully none seem to have been taken from Full Frontal. No prevalence of fancy editing or clever tricks, just an understanding that sometime the most effective way to tell a story is to let the actors do the talking rather than the time lapsed photography and that's appreciated in these Avid overloaded days.
The reason Criminal is so enjoyable stems more from the absence of anything astonishingly awful than from the presence of anything astonishingly amazing. Parsing that last statement reveals only that Criminal is not astonishing, which is not an astonishing statement in itself. No, pretty much the only astonishing thing associated with Criminal is the number of times I've used the word 'astonishing' in this paragraph despite claiming 'astonishing' to have no association with Criminal. My head is spinning. I'm going to have a lie down in a dark room.
....That's better. Where were we? Ah, yes. The point I was going to make was that no one seems to be doing anything obviously wrong or anything that could seem to be improved upon. Reilly won't blow anyone away with his role here the way Paul Giamatti did in Sideways, but that's more due to the script having far less room for building a sympathetic character around a avguely pathetic man. Which is as it should be, thinking about it. When movies like Matchstick Men go out of their way to build up con artists as happy go lucky, quirky lovable scamps rather than, well, criminals it's easy to forget that we aren't supposed to like characters like these in a responsible society. Seeing as Gaddis shows little remorse for his actions until a slight softening towards the final reel it's difficult to truly connect with him, although that's no slight to a compelling performance of a thankless character.
Diego Luna fares better. As Gaddis comments, he looks like a nice guy and that's often carried through to his actions. Being in the game to raise cash for his sick father might smack a little of a cheap, sentimental device to garner sympathy but in a film full of cons we can allow it to perpetrate one on the audience. His part in proceedings is no more open to any real criticism than Reilly, and for that he must be commended. The support from Gyllenhaal and Mullan is able, although both are present in small enough doses to be left wanting more.
In a film like this everyone's looking for the angles over everyone else, and this can result in some truly disgustingly contrived set pieces (Ocean's Twelve, I'm looking at you). Were it not for the fact that it's been a solidly enjoyable flick throughout there was a distinct possibility that this could have been another Basic. Thankfully it never plumbs those remarkable depths, and for this we are thankful.
I'm critically aware of how much I've been talking about other films rather than Criminal over the course of this inane rambling, which stems from my complete failure to get across exactly why it's such a roundly decent film. The script is sharp in places, the acting is uniformly commendable, it's neat and tidy, it always has a pen. As all I seem to be doing in writing more words in this shambolic effort is to be digging ever deeper holes for my self I shall say only this - if this is the kind of film you like then you'll certainly like this kind of film.
Were I in the business of passing quantifiable judgements, I'd award this 4/5 TippyMarks.
Diego Luna (Rodrigo)
Maggie Gyllenhaal (Valerie)
Peter Mullan (Wiliam Hannigan)
Zitto Kazann (Ochoa)
Jonathan Tucker (Michael)