Houses of Games

Confidence and Identity, two slick movies that share a special lousiness.

Confidence (Lions Gate) and Identity (Columbia) are one-word-title Hollywood efforts by slick American directors named James (Foley and Mangold) that share an essential lousiness—a reverberant, emblematic lousiness. Neither is obviously terrible: They’re fast, snazzily crafted, acted with relish, and full of showoff dialogue by screenwriters barely out of film school; and they’ll get plenty of reviews studded with adjectives like “stylish” and “mind-bending.” But their scripts are empty exercises: copies of copies of old movies tricked out with up-to-the-second technical or narrative gimmicks, and whorishly calculated to tug on the private parts of studio executives and actors’ agents. I saw them back-to-back and left feeling hungry for a movie.

The more irritating of the pair—by miles—is Confidence, which was obviously written by someone (Doug Jung, fresh out of NYU film school) who saw The Sting (1973) as a kid and drank in the Tao of David Mamet. The movie opens with an overhead shot of its narrator in a pool of blood: “So, I’m dead,” he says, in voice-over. (Killer opening, huh?) Played by Edward Burns, he’s a grifter called Jake Vig (killer name, huh?) who has, he tells us, been brought down by a redhead called Lily Finn (ditto). Jake is telling his story to us—but he’s also, in flashback, telling it to his assassin (Morris Chestnut), and, in that flashback-inside-a-flashback, telling more stories that lead to more flashbacks.

The fashionably spiraling syntax seems meant to distract us from an old-hat premise: See, Jake and his crew of con artists (which includes a pair of crooked cops, played by Luis Guzman and Donal Logue) have inadvertently stolen cash on its way to a vicious crime boss (Dustin Hoffman), whose goons are now hunting them. Rather than take it on the lam, Jake strolls into the lion’s den and nervily proposes a joint con. Is he simply trying to save himself, or does he plan to exact an elaborate revenge for the killing of one of his cohorts? No clue from Jake, who plays his cards close to the vest—or from Burns, who is such a glibly insincere actor that there’s no point looking for “tells.” The dull bulk of the movie is his scheme to bilk a banker (Robert Forster) with underworld ties out of several million dollars, an elaborate shell game that requires the recruitment of a “skirt”—Lily Finn (Rachel Weisz), a pickpocket who might or might not have an agenda of her own.

Foley’s agenda involves color. One character bathed in blue converses with one bathed in green in front of a square of red. Sometimes the square is yellow and the faces are red; sometimes the faces are yellow and the square is purple. Sometimes those blue/green/red faces are in tight close-up, revealing more than you want to know about the actors’ skin conditions. There are fancy transitions from scene to scene—whoosh pans, swoosh pans, split screens with one frame goosing another out of the way. Foley uses every gimmick he can think of to keep the picture in motion. This is known in some quarters as style—although true style, as Kenneth Tynan once pointed out, doesn’t labor so unstylishly to call attention to itself.

Confidence is for people who like movies with crosses and double crosses and double-double crosses and triple-gainer-double-whammy crosses. I’m not a big fan of Mamet’s houses of games, but at least his worldview is consistent: Life is one big con, everyone screws everyone, etc. Screenwriter Jung is selling a different idea: his own brilliance. In one scene, Jake names possible marks inside the banker’s company, and each appears on screen in a mock newspaper personal ad—but all I could think of was “Single White Screenwriter wants attention.” A man shot while eating is described as dying “right in the middle of his egg foo yong.” There are probably restaurants that still make egg foo yong, but it’s a good bet that screenwriter “Egg Foo” Jung grew up on Szechwan and has never tasted the stuff.

Hordes of good actors evidently lined up to appear in Confidence, which wastes Weisz, Guzman, Logue, Forster, and Paul Giamatti, among others. Midway through, a grizzled Andy Garcia shambles in, chewing on a cigar, as an FBI agent; he’s so fatuously hammy that his true narrative function is never in doubt. (“A good chess player can see up to 20 moves deep,” intones Jake. I’m not much of a chess player, yet I could spot Jung’s strategy after 15 minutes.) As for Ed Burns, I used to hope he’d concentrate on acting because then he’d direct fewer movies. But I can avoid the movies he directs, whereas he shows up as an actor in movies I want to see. What a hard call. …

As the homicidal crime-boss King, Dustin Hoffman looks at first to be reprising his great Robert Evans impression, which he showed off in last year’s The Kid Stays in the Picture and, most memorably, in Wag the Dog (1997). But the part goes nowhere, and the performance dissolves into a medley of scuzzy-wacko tics—gum cracking, flashing his big choppers, casting homosexually insinuating glances at the lunkish Burns. Hoffman doesn’t usually go in for scenery-chewing turns like this. He must have watched a few Al Pacino movies and thought, “Anything he can chew, I can chew better!”

1,2,3,4, can I have a little more?

Identity turns into a much weirder exercise in genre bending, but the first hour is relatively straight and reasonably entertaining. The premise is almost too dated to believe. A bunch of stock characters are trapped in a rundown motel battered by a furious rainstorm: The bridges are out, the phones are dead (and the cell phones can’t get a signal), and someone is killing the cast off one by one—leaving a room key (the numbers counting down from 10) beside each corpse. Before you can say And Then There Were None, someone mentions it—but the postmodern reference doesn’t dispel the tension, since the atmosphere has been flamboyantly (and evocatively) old-movie-ish from the start.

The screenwriter, Michael Cooney, has roots in Grade-Z hack-’em-ups like Jack Frost (1997—not the one where Michael Keaton comes back as a snowman), but that might be a blessing here: He knows his way around dumb scare-picture tricks. He and Mangold and the excellent actors (among them John Cusack, Amanda Peet, Ray Liotta, and Clea Duvall) find the perfect middle ground between the overripe and the campy, so that we actually find ourselves getting rattled by the hoary B-movie conventions. Forget about the overproduced remakes of William Castle’s House on Haunted Hill (1958) and 13 Ghosts (1960): This seems like a good, modest, Castle-type melodrama.

Except it isn’t. Identity takes a dive into the meta that I won’t spoil—except to say that Cooney and Mangold want it both ways: to generate B-movie chills and give you fancy, Matrix-like levels of illusion and reality at the same time. The problem is that the finale doesn’t build on the horror stuff that has preceded it: It renders it inconsequential. And the newfangled psychological resolution is much, much more simpleminded than any of the third-generation Agatha Christie stuff. Identity is suicidally insecure.