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I Scam, Therefore I Am: Diego Luna plays a sweet-faced card hustler in 'Criminal.'

Con Aired

Gregory Jacobs' 'Criminal' plots out a tricky score

By Richard von Busack

JOHN C. REILLY has the dogged puss of a lifetime Chicagoan, with a boxer's nose, bleak little eyes and a pushed-in forehead. This potato-faced actor looks like he was brought into this world to face disappointment. Criminal by Gregory Jacobs—a longtime assistant to Steven Soderbergh—showcases Reilly's acting. And on the whole, it is sharp work, though as, in many of David Mamet's criminal films, it becomes clear Criminal isn't about crime, it's about acting exercises.

As close as Reilly's con artist Richard Gaddis gets to a proper introduction is what he says to a fellow crook, "So, you know what I do." The kid he picks up for the sake of expediency is a sweet-faced novice named Rodrigo (Diego Luna of Y tu mamá también). Rodrigo doesn't have the sense not to pull the same short change scam twice in the same Gardena card casino. Gaddis, who's at the opposite end of his career from Rodrigo, has the third strike hanging over him. He's anxious to come up with a quick score. Almost faster than he can take it all in, Richard gets hooked up with a perfectly forged silver certificate. He can use the bogus piece of currency to fleece a rich, ruthless collector (Peter Mullan, impressively harsh). Halfway through the movie, it's not clear who really has the hook in him: the mark or the confidence man.

Like Soderbergh, Jacobs has an unfussy, rapid style. The renowned cinematographer Chris Menges shot Criminal, and L.A. looks rich, crowded and cold in his lens. Menges contrasts the sleet-colored ranks of rich-person condos along Wilshire Boulevard with the pastel—but never needlessly picturesque—favellas in East L.A., where Rodrigo comes from. The girl in the picture is played by Maggie Gyllenhaal. She's Richard's sister, Valerie, a concierge at a businessman's hotel. She loathes her conniving brother and lets him know it. Valerie is weary and hollow-eyed and wears a shiny dress that looks a little ill-fitting, as if it were a uniform or as if she'd grabbed a quick nap in it. She seems like a woman who does nothing all day long except fight off scams. It's a drastic change from Gyllenhaal's last really major part, in Secretary, where she played a sweet, slow innocent—and it suggests that she's going to be a top actress.

Those alert to the fast con will realize that Criminal is a remake. It's source is a crafty Argentine movie titled Nueve Reinas (Nine Queens). The original script's amoral trickery was probably irresistible to the Yankees, but it's not all here in the remake. Argentina's economy gave Nine Queens a final twist. The last laugh was on the hustlers, as they were all outwitted by the biggest confidence scam of all: Argentina's financial crisis. The payoff, if it had come, wouldn't have been worth much more than the dollar-sized strips of newspapers stuffing a wallet in a pigeon-drop scam. Without the background of political con artistry, Criminal seems minor, a pastime movie. It's as if you remade Cabaret in mid-1970s Manhattan. Certainly the sexual politics and decadence would work fine, but without the looming Nazism there wouldn't be the right contrast shadowing the desperate, hustling figures in the foreground.


Criminal (R; 87 min.), directed by Gregory Jacobs, written by Fabián Bielinsky, Gregory Jacobs and Steven Soderbergh, photographed by Chris Menges and starring John C. Reilly, Diego Luna and Maggie Gyllenhaal, opens Friday at selected theaters.


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From the September 8-14, 2004 issue of Metro, Silicon Valley's Weekly Newspaper.

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