by Ed Symkus

The first line of dialogue in this twisting, turning, puzzle of a movie is the kind that makes me want to get my hands around the screenwriter's throat and squeeze. "So, I'm dead," says Ed Burns in voice-over. And there, true to his word, is his body, all crumpled up in an alley, not moving, not breathing.

Why does a movie start by giving away what's coming? American Beauty comes to mind, and that beginning gnawed at me all the way through.

Fortunately, things turn out different here. This slick item consists of one situation after another that might be true and might not. And by the time the story gets out of its flashback phase, and advances to where we once again see the body of Ed Burns in an alley, there's just no telling who's lying or who's playing whom.

The title refers to a confidence man, or in the case of one of these folks, a con woman. And one of those tricks is put into operation right away. Burns plays Jake, a shifty tough guy who appears to be the brains of a small operation that picks up chunks of cash via the use of inside men, marks, shills and other slangy terms that all add up to separating unwary people from their money.

But the first con in the film goes awry. They happen to pick someone who's carrying the money of the wrong guy. They end up with their hands on some crooked election money that belongs to someone called the King (Dustin Hoffman, in one of the odder roles of his career). The plot hinges around the fact that Jake realizes right away that he doesn't want to be hunted down by this dangerous guy, so he approaches him, saying that he wants to give the money back. Then says he wants to work for him, with the thought of pulling off a much larger scam, thereby making everyone some bigger money.

Burns and Hoffman are one of the more interesting screen match-ups. Burns, looking buff in a T-shirt, is a smooth fast-talker, who's always thinking on his feet. Hoffman chews gum all the way through a long, chatty monologue that includes calling Jake "kind of cute." And while Jake plays it tough, it's always the unsettling King who's in control.

And who knows, maybe the con that Jake says he and his strange gang will pull off and that King says he'll front the money for is a good idea. But then slinky Lily (Rachel Weisz) enters the fray, although she works on her own. But she won't be on her own for long.

And so the film is set up to put all of these characters into action and, at the same time, to take a look at a few others on the periphery. Within the main group, Paul Giamatti turns in a funny and feverish performance as Gordo, with eyes going more and more agog as more things go wrong. Hoffman carries a scruffy look, Andy Garcia goes for more of a grungy one as Gunther, a cop who's been trying to chase down the gang for a while.

Actually, the whole film is easy, and fun, to look at. Director James Foley fills it with an upbeat, horizontal editing technique known as a sweep. There are also some speeded-up scenes that feel out of place only for a second, then nicely make the film just a little more nervous. And the stylized production design includes a great color palette in the King's strip joint, where he conducts business.

The acting is uniformly excellent, with Weisz regularly stealing scenes. In her first one with Hoffman, during which he coaxes her into feeling his heartbeat, they're both hilarious, him because of his forward attitude, her because of her wide-eyed deadpan. And she shows off her reacting chops when Giamatti casually refers to her as a skirt and she silently glares at him, unable to believe he used the derogatory term right in front of her.

There's a lot of talking mixed in with the action here. And there's a wonderful contrasting of scenes when one of the gabfests among the thieves takes place in a restaurant, where everyone quietly discusses what's going on, and another where they're sitting at an outdoor cafe, with cars and trucks in the background, shouting at each other to be heard.

In the end, all of the characters and stories and scams start coming together to be tied up neatly. The final one is probably a little too neat. But right up till then, everyone will be kept guessing.

Publication date: 04/24/03

Our Legacy: Our Voice, Our Action, Our Power

Thu., Sept. 24, 6:30-7:30 p.m.
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