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Sleight of Hand 

As a moviegoer of a certain age, I will probably always think that George Roy Hill's The Sting is the greatest of the caper movies. Redford and Newman at the top of their craft. Robert Shaw their deserving patsy. A great supporting cast including Ray Walston and Eileen Brennan. Scott Joplin's great music. And David Ward's clever script as slick as whale spray on an ice floe. You knew the twist was coming. You hardened yourself for it. And it got you anyway. Many a caper flick since. David Mamet does them pretty well: Heist, The Spanish Prisoner, House of Games. And James Foley's current Confidence is in that league. It's not The Sting, but it's a decently diverting entertainment.

Written by Doug Jung, Confidence is the story of a lifelong grifter trying to con his way out of a serious jam of his own unintentional making. Jake Vig (Edward Burns) is a talented liar with the necessary nerves of steel. The only job he's ever had is scamming. He runs a small, tight-knit gang that specializes not only in taking the mark down, but in doing it in such a way that the victim can't even go to the police. We see the formula at the picture's outset. Jake and his men are posing as bookies in on a fix. They lure in their target with the inevitable promise of a low-risk, big score. Then a little "trouble" comes down, causing Jake to freak out and blow a guy away. This is all staged, of course, but the gang manages to convince the mark that he's now an accessory to a murder committed in the process of a felony. The mark screeches into hiding; the gang makes off with the loot.

Unfortunately, Jake hasn't understood that his most recent mark was a bagman for an L.A. mobster known as King (Dustin Hoffman) and that the grifters have made off with the money of a very dangerous individual. After King has one of Jake's men shot, Jake decides to confront his new enemy. Rather than run, Jake makes King an offer the mobster can't refuse. Jake will run a new scam in order to pay King back. Namely, Jake will take $5 million off crooked banker Morgan Price (Robert Forster). King grew up with Price and has hated him since childhood. Deal done. Though Jake's confidence that King will honor the split does wrinkle our brow.

The next stages of Confidence lack the clarity of the setup. The actual scam seems so overly simple that we can't believe it would work else it would be done on a daily basis. (But then, I'm forgetting about Enron, WorldCom and Pets.com.) For a little romantic sub-plotting, Jake recruits shapely pickpocket Lily (Rachel Weisz) to join his surviving crew of nerdy Gordo (Paul Giamatti) and tough-guy Miles (Brian Van Holt). Jake's team dresses up, masters MBA patter and manipulates a lonely bank officer into approving a $5 million loan of Price's money for a non-existent business. The filmmakers hurry past the job of having us understand nearly enough about the business idea to fully accept that our pathetic banker could be so easily swindled. But everything would seem poised to go swimmingly if it weren't for the sudden appearance of Gunter Butan (Andy Garcia), a dogged FBI agent who is to Jake Vig as Inspector Javert is to Jean Valjean.

The picture has its glitches. The script reveals Gordo's obsession with clean public restaurants on an occasion that's actually inconsistent with the way that detail is subsequently employed. And while we're asked to believe that Jake and crew have been living off the confidence game for years, we're also asked to accept that one of his established inside guys would be so stupid as to brag in detail about their latest score to his bookie, of all people.

But the key thing with a movie like this is the extent to which it gets you. Watching this kind of caper movie is akin to watching a magic act. You know it's sleight of hand. But you're still impressed when you can't catch the magician with his hand in the trick bag. Confidence gets a passing mark on this score. We know the reversals are coming, just as we did in The Sting. But we smile aplenty if the filmmakers do something we don't expect or do something we do expect in a way we don't expect it. Foley and Jung manage both.

And then there's just the pure joy of watching Dustin Hoffman chew scenery like a black Angus in a fresh field of clover. Smacking his gum and marching around like a bantam rooster on diet pills, he turns King into a wild mix of Ratso Rizzo and Tony Soprano. His stern lecture to a couple of young women auditioning for jobs in a live sex act may be worth the price of admission all by itself.

click to enlarge Jake Vig (Edward Burns) tries to gain the trust of a - mobster named King (Dustin Hoffman) in - Confidence. -
  • Jake Vig (Edward Burns) tries to gain the trust of a mobster named King (Dustin Hoffman) in Confidence.

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