Even discounting the one-two box office punch of Spider-Man 3 and Disturbia (neither of which I've seen yet), the nation's multiplexes have been even more awash in crime than usual. Three recent films—a con man movie, a murder mystery and a heist thriller—offer a good sampler of the various types of cinematic skullduggery available to audiences. All are worth seeing to varying degrees, but only one is urgently so.
Clifford Irving, the man who almost got away with one of the biggest scams of all time—the phony autobiography of Howard Hughes—has been complaining to anyone who'll listen that Lasse Hallstrom's The Hoax gets the facts almost completely wrong. While I wonder why Hallstrom and screenwriter William Wheeler didn't consider the true story good enough, I'm also not the first reviewer to note the irony of one of the past century's great liars complaining that Hollywood played fast and loose with the story of his life.
According to Wheeler's screenplay, Irving (Richard Gere) is an impecunious and improvident novelist whose publishers are tiring of his second-rate knockoffs of Philip Roth. ("Impecunious" and "improvident" are adjectives I use advisedly: early on we see Irving buying a new Mercedes based on a good preliminary evaluation of his latest manuscript, even as the bank is repossessing his sofa.) Fed up with the disrespect he gets from his editor (Hope Davis) and the faceless, condescending executives who control his fate, Irving almost by accident cooks up the one scheme guaranteed to grab any publisher's attention.
The first half of The Hoax is by far the better, detailing Irving's frantic improvisations to keep the Hughes scam afloat. Those efforts include the theft of the ineptly written but informative memoirs of longtime Hughes associate Noah Dietrich (Eli Wallach, in a hilarious cameo) and staged events such as Hughes' putative arrival via helicopter at McGraw-Hill's headquarters (the scene that begins the movie). This section plays strongly to Gere's strengths as an actor—he's always best playing a con man, as in Chicago or Primal Fear, charging full speed ahead on chutzpah and charm—and for as long as it lasts The Hoax is great, cynical fun. The supporting performances help a lot: Alfred Molina is a standout as Dick Suskind, Irving's researcher and accomplice in the scam. As portrayed by Molina, Suskind is a clumsy teddy bear of a guy who'd rather be off writing children's books, but who—at first—looks up to Irving the way the school nerd looks up to the Big Man on Campus. Suskind's expressions of sheer panic as he watches Irving bulldoze the suits at McGraw-Hill are the funniest things in the movie. The women performers also acquit themselves well: besides Davis, who is persuasive as a corporate hatchet woman, Marcia Gay Harden is appropriately Eurotrashy as Irving's wife and accomplice Edith, and Julie Delpy is an exquisite vision, albeit too briefly, as Irving's mistress Nina Van Pallandt. (The real Van Pallandt used her notoriety from the case to become a minor film actress; one of her most prominent roles was in Paul Schrader's 1980 film American Gigolo, which starred a rising young actor named Richard Gere.)
Sadly, the fun ends about halfway through the film, because of one of Irving's own unequivocal claims—that he found documented evidence of then-President Nixon taking bribes from Hughes. From that point, Hallstrom and Wheeler lead the film into a dank, Stygian fantasy in which Irving imagines he is collaborating with Hughes to get Nixon out of office. There are hallucinatory kidnappings, beatings and defenestrations, as well as Irving having long tape-recorded conversations with himself, dressed as Hughes and imitating Hughes' voice. These scenes are laborious to sit through, partly because they call for considerable nuance on an actor's part, and Gere isn't exactly the go-to guy for nuance. In any case, the Nixon revelation leads The Hoax along a convoluted, lugubrious path of strained seriousness and self-importance—not the first time Richard Nixon has had that effect, and probably not the last.
Gregory Hoblit's Fracture features the most famous screen Nixon to date, Anthony Hopkins, playing a variation on his most famous character to date, Hannibal Lecter. Ted Crawford, Hopkins' Fracture character, is far more rational than Lecter, but no less malevolent. It is giving nothing away to state this. At the film's beginning, we watch Crawford shoot his unfaithful wife (Embeth Davidtz) in the head, then confess the crime to the investigating detective (Billy Burke).
The Crawford case is handed over to Assistant D.A. Willy Beachum (Ryan Gosling), an arrogant legal hotshot with a 97-percent conviction rate and a job waiting for him at a posh private firm downtown. Beachum figures he can slam-dunk the case and head off for that corner office; however, no sooner does the case reach the courtroom than the evidence starts going severely wrong. For one thing, ballistics proves that Crawford's gun was never even fired. For another, the investigating detective neglects to tell Beachum that he was the paramour of Crawford's wife.
From then on, things get ugly for Beachum, whose very competence as a lawyer is called into question. Crawford, a structural engineer by trade, gets a particular kick out of taunting Beachum, sending him boxes of broken eggshells to demonstrate how easily a seemingly airtight case can fracture (hence the title).
Critics generally have likened Fracture to a big-screen episode of CSI or Law & Order. However, I think a more appropriate comparison is The Illusionist, Neil Burger's film from last year. Like The Illusionist, Fracture is plushly designed and photographed (Paul Eads and Kramer Morgenthau are the designer and cinematographer for the latter); features two enormously talented lead performers (The Illusionist starred Edward Norton and Paul Giamatti); and sets up the audience for a far more surprising ending than it finally delivers. The solutions to the mysteries in both films are so totally quotidian that you're not sure whom you hate more—the screenwriters, for wasting your time, or yourself, for expecting something better. (The end of Fracture, among other things, makes both Crawford and Beachum look terribly stupid; if they were as smart as they were presented as being, they would have anticipated the final plot twist in the first ten minutes.)
But, also like The Illusionist, Fracture is worth seeing for the acting alone. Hopkins is indisputably one of the greatest living actors in the English-speaking world, and as Crawford his eyes dance with calculated glee as he purrs his lines like a sated tiger.
Ryan Gosling looks enough like Edward Norton to be his brother, and as Beachum he demonstrates the same unfussy yet superbly nuanced style as Norton, as well as a sleepy-eyed intensity reminiscent of the young Robert Mitchum. Hopkins and Gosling together in this movie are like two master chess players, eyeing each other with crafty respect, each waiting for the chance to spring checkmate on the other. If you can see past that dueling pair, David Strathairn brings his usual solid professionalism to the role of Beachum's acerbic boss.
Gosling is often touted as the best actor of his generation, and has last year's Best Actor Oscar nomination for Half Nelson to show for it. I have only seen Gosling in Half Nelson and Fracture, and while he duly impressed me in both, I still would hesitate to hand Gosling the crown as long as Joseph Gordon-Levitt continues to make movies. Gordon-Levitt has had a remarkable series of performances over the past several years in films that, unfortunately, few people saw—Manic, Mysterious Skin, Brick, and his latest film, The Lookout.
The Lookout marks the directorial debut of Scott Frank, a brilliant screenwriter whose credits include Dead Again, Out of Sight, Get Shorty and Minority Report. In The Lookout, he presents us with Chris Pratt (Gordon-Levitt), a former high-school golden boy reduced to a brain-damaged shell of his former self, thanks to an auto accident caused by his own carelessness. Chris—a variant of Guy Pearce's Leonard in Memento—must keep a notebook with him at all times, reminding himself to do all the things the rest of us do automatically, such as using soap in the shower or taking his keys with him when he parks his car. He has a tendency to blurt out inappropriate things, such as his desire to sleep with his therapist (Carla Gugino). The only job he can get is night janitor at a small-town bank, and his only close friend is his older roommate Lew (Jeff Daniels), a sardonic blind man who also, it turns out, was the author of his own misfortune. Chris' wealthy parents, unable to appreciate their son's suffering, keep him on a short leash, paying his rent but otherwise offering him no help, financial or emotional. Though his short-term memory is gone, Chris' long-term memory is just fine, all the better to torment him. Beset by memories of his old life—and of the accident, which also maimed his then-girlfriend and killed two classmates—Chris is tormented constantly by rage, guilt and grief, and wants only to be the young man he once was.
This makes Chris easy prey for Gary Spargo (Matthew Goode), a slightly older guy whom he meets in a bar one night. Gary claims to have dated Chris' sister in school, and to have held Chris in awe in those days. He and Chris become fast friends, and Gary's ex-stripper girlfriend Luvlee (Isla Fisher) comes on to Chris immediately, giving him a taste of female companionship he hasn't had since the accident.
It soon becomes evident that Gary and his posse are less interested in Chris than in the bank where he works. You deserve that money, they tell him. Help us steal it, and you can be the man you used to be.
Seen strictly as a heist caper, The Lookout isn't really out of the ordinary, and the fates of a few too many of the characters are telegraphed the second they appear. Also, one of the major characters disappears halfway through the film, with no real explanation. (That disappearance makes perfect sense once you think about it, but some viewers might find the issue requires more thought than it's worth.) No matter: it's the characterizations in Frank's rich, sad, thoughtful script that make the film, as well as the excellent actors he chooses to play those characters.
Goode—a far cry from the bland pretty boys he played in Woody Allen's Match Point and other films—is riveting as a con man whose smooth line of patter barely masks his virulent sociopathy. In his sense of entitlement and his physical frailty—we note that Gary relies a great deal on his asthma inhaler—Goode's Gary is a monstrous, funhouse-mirror image of Chris. Daniels, that most versatile of actors, is even better as Lew, whose prickly wisdom and independence are a blessed relief from the usual treacly portrayal of blind people in Hollywood movies. The whole film, in fact, is superbly acted down to the smallest bit part. Among the lesser roles, I particularly liked Sergio Di Zio as Ted, a friendly, hapless small-town cop who brings Chris doughnuts every night.
In the end, however, The Lookout comes down to Chris and to the actor who plays him. It's impossible to imagine any other actor in the role of Chris besides Gordon-Levitt; it's also hard to imagine there will be a better lead performance in any film this year. From the unobtrusively halting gait Gordon-Levitt gives Chris, to the sad, haunted look in his eyes, you know that this is a fully inhabited, three-dimensional, living character, played by an actor of the very highest natural gifts and technical accomplishment. There's a clean, magical honesty to Gordon-Levitt's acting, a thoughtful skill that never reaches irritably for actorly tics and mannerisms, an ability to win the audience's sympathy without overtly playing for it. Furthermore, he has achieved this level of accomplishment at the age of twenty-six, so it should be fascinating to see what he does with it in the decades to come. Meanwhile, do yourself a favor and see what he does with it in The Lookout.