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Movie review by Greg Carlson

Cons and capers can make for terrific screen entertainment. From “The Sting” to “The Grifters,” “Paper Moon” to “Catch Me If You Can,” scam artists at work on the fringes of respectable society fire the imaginations of us regular folk who only dream about being clever enough to fix the ultimate haul. Even recent movies like “Heist,” “Ocean’s 11” and “The Score” demonstrate that high-stakes gamesmanship isn’t likely to disappear from the cinema any time soon. Director James Foley’s “Confidence” is another, lesser entry in the genre, but it is not without its beguilements.

“Confidence” stars the perpetually hoarse Edward Burns as master swindler Jake Vig, a career crook with a practically superhuman aptitude for separating suckers from their money. Working with a seasoned team of role-players, Vig accidentally cheats a major Los Angeles crimelord known as “The King” out of a rather substantial sum. Under the threat of unspeakable harm to his person, Vig agrees to restore the King’s cash by hatching a major con involving an elaborate series of perfectly-timed deceptions that promise to net him five million bucks. Better yet, the loot will be pilfered from one of the King’s most despised arch-rivals.

Foley, whose resume includes the film version of David Mamet’s “Glengarry Glen Ross,” has both the necessary experience for this kind of material and the visual gusto to breathe colorful life into the blue neon signs and rain-slicked streets of the L.A. underworld. Foley’s vision is only compromised by the lackluster scripting of Doug Jung, who comes close, but never quite pushes the story into a place that would distinguish “Confidence” from movies with similar agendas. Despite its carefully orchestrated double and triple crosses, the movie exudes an air of familiarity along the lines of “been there, done that.”

Edward Burns’ poseur-cool and somnambulistic presence desperately necessitate a hearty supporting cast, and on this count “Confidence” delivers. The sensational, often overlooked Paul Giamatti sprinkles in enough comic relief to give the movie a pulse where it is most needed, and Rachel Weisz is so good it is a shame her smooth-operating pickpocket is lamentably underutilized (but then, what do you expect when testosterone levels are so high, women are literally called “skirts”?). Donal Logue, along with the indispensable Luis Guzman, turn up as a pair of cops on the take, and Andy Garcia is ideal as the mysterious fed pursuing Vig and his crew.

In the role of Winston “The King” King, however, Dustin Hoffman upstages leading man Burns in every scene in which he appears. Hoffman’s role is not much more than a glorified cameo, but the veteran puts on a clinic for his young co-stars. Affecting an amorphous, indeterminate sexuality (you’re never quite certain, but King seems to enjoy hitting on both genders in equal measure), Hoffman is a livewire, chewing gum with zeal and peering out at the world from behind a pair of librarian’s eyeglasses. Aside from Giamatti, Hoffman is the only actor in the movie who understands that this is the sort of stuff that is not meant to be taken seriously. By the time the trigger is pulled on the last hustle, you find yourself wishing you had seen less Vig, more King.

This review was originally published in the High Plains Reader the week of 4/28/03.

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