Con games, grifters, clever schemes, you know the drill. In setting up this
version of the genre it starts out with the essential element in the title,
as though to take us in from the outset. You can't be much as a con man
without confidence and the title is there to convince us of it. Not that
lead Edward Burns doesn't deliver on the promise. He has confidence to burn
as he plies his way through a minefield of shady and dangerous characters
challenging his every move.
Jake Vig* (Burns) is a guy who could sell you fuzz off a peach and make you
think you got your dollar's worth. He turns his talent for slick talk
to the con game with the able help of a group of experienced hucksters. To
get the hijinx rolling, director James Foley starts with Jake getting shot,
but narrating. So, he's not dead; just making the King (Dustin Hoffman), a
depraved, criminally insane mob boss trading in porn, (to whom Jake is
indebted) think he's dead. This is better than the real thing when the wily
King thinks you've crossed him.
Jake can get away with anything, so we have great hopes for his audacious
grift on the King's $5 Mil. In addition to his regulars, Gordo (Paul
Ciamatti) and Miles (Brian Van Holt), he entices the exemplary pickpocket
Lily (gorgeous Rachel Weisz) to join in for a share. The question with her
participation is whether the romantic sparks drawing them like opposite poles
on a magnet will compromise the operation. The other guys think so.
Besides the King, scruffy federal agent Gunther Butan (Andy Garcia), his good
looks rendered seedy by a growth of beard (seems like he and Hoffman had the
same idea), is trying to get the "goods" on Jake, something he hasn't been
able to pull off in years on the job. The historic cat and mouse game
between them has been going on so long they have a relationship.
You simply can't take anyone's word for anything. In this world, everyone's
working an angle and the winner is going to be the one who anticipates and
controls the other players. The con artist depends on his wit and Doug
Jung's script develops the way such a person might operate with the
threat of violence and quick death. In fact, the key to the story is that
Jake doesn't only accept his debt to the King, he recognizes that the only
way to deal with the loss of a psychopath's money is by planning how to make
the debt work for him in the end. You pull a grift on a mobster. Well, for a
true con man, it's the only way. Will it work? Does brute force win out or
does it not stand a chance against raw cleverness?
The chemistry among the group and opposing forces is, when it's not too
campy, convincing. Weisz fills the screen with animal sultriness; Edwards
with smooth assurance. Hoffman devours the role of no-holds barred evil and
Garcia achieves a high mark in laid back amusement. Donal Logue and Luis
Guzman play the dirty cops Whitworth and Manzano with all the caricature
The problem here is, however, that the real game is the filmmakers'. In
films about cons it's too easy to withhold the obvious, the thing that gives
it away. It's hardly fair or plausible to use the medium to scam the
audience. That's just unclever and cheap manipulation, a visual shell game.
Despite considerable entertainment value, there's a little too much of that
going on here.
To me, the gold standard for the genre is "The Grifters" (1990), with "The
Spanish Prisoner" (1997) another satisfying play on deception. "Confidence"
might pull it off better than this year's "The Good Thief", but as I left the
theater, I couldn't shake the feeling that I'd been had.
~~ Jules Brenner
* A "vig" is the commission a casino makes on a bet.