'Confidence': The Art of the Steal

By Desson Howe
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, April 25, 2003

CONFIDENCE" reminds us of the brainteasing enjoyments of the con game. Watching someone perform the subtle art of deception, whether it's for sexual power in "Dangerous Liaisons" or sophisticated money-swindling in such films as "House of Games" or "The Grifters," is almost always intriguing.

Perhaps we're rooting for the con men, the scammers, jealous of their smoothness, the ease with which they sail through life, free of the restrictions that bind most of us. Or maybe we're thinking: Thank God it wasn't me that just got suckered.

Either way, it's great to watch the cat-and-mouse of it all -- even when the movie might not be firing on all points.

Edward Burns plays Jake Vig, a slick, good-looking confidence man who works with a team. In classic form, we meet them as they pull off one of their special maneuvers. Playing their roles in an apparent deal gone wrong, they fool a panicky, sleazy guy out of his money. But after the smoke clears, and their target has left them with a pile of cash, there's trouble ahead that no one could have anticipated.

It seems Jake and company just swindled the accountant of a dangerous crime boss named Winston King, who shows them their mistake when he takes immediate and bloody retribution.

Angered by the kingpin's retaliatory strike, the resourceful Jake enters the lair of the gangster (Dustin Hoffman) to strike a mutually beneficial deal. Jake offers to make Winston even more money, as well as glory, by scamming one of the crime boss's biggest enemies, a banker with ties to organized crime. The prospect intrigues Winston. He goes for it, insisting that one of his powerful goons tag along for the ride.

Assembling a new team for the scam, Winston recruits lone operator and steamy brunette Lily (Rachel Weisz), who screams "romantic interest." Let the games begin. Few should be surprised to learn that, in this movie, there's always another scam at work.

"Confidence" is certainly no threat to such top-notch con-game entertainments as "Grifters" or David Mamet's "Games." Although he does a commendable job as the movie's smoothest operator, Burns's character remains secondhand. He's a "leading man," modeled perhaps on such cover-boy characters as Richard Gere's Julian in "American Gigolo." Does he really know all the grifter rules and harbor the con man's superstitions? Does he exude the subtextual power this movie would like him to? Or are we watching a pretty boy aping this kind of character?

As for Jake's crew -- played with ensemble enthusiasm by Paul Giamatti, Brian Van Holt and Louis Lombardi -- we don't see what really binds them together. They're a sort of instant-pals group for Jake, like walking, talking background scenery. And the less said about Weisz's character, the better.

And yet, despite these and other shortcomings (do we really need a flashback storytelling style with the hero-narrator at gunpoint?), "Confidence" remains enjoyable. Hoffman helps. He has obviously received Christopher Walken-size freedom to make his character as quirky and strange as he wants. So when Winston semi-flirts with Jake, noting his impressive glutes, or directs two stripper-sisters to perform sexual fun-and-games routines that still remain "tasteful," he makes the movie more interesting and pushes the chess game between himself and Jake into a more compelling zone. And finally, there is the simple joy of the con game. Being fooled, getting taken for a ride with someone at the controls -- these are the elements that keep us watching. And we know that as soon as one piece of trickery comes to light, there'll be others to savor.

CONFIDENCE (R, 98 minutes) -- Contains violence and obscenity. Area theaters.

© 2003 The Washington Post Company