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Playing a game, putting on a play 

Always an important and popular character in American literature (and no doubt drawn from observed reality), the confidence man, that occasionally lovable rogue, fleeces his victims by exploiting not only their gullibility, but also their greed. Most con men don't simply steal the money from their marks. Just like the average legitimate Wall Street hustler, they persuade them to surrender considerable sums voluntarily; investing, as the crooks promise, in the expectation of acquiring even more money, usually through some inside information, special knowledge, or some not-entirely-legal scheme. As W. C. Fields put it, you can't cheat an honest man.

            In James Foley's new movie, Confidence, Fields' dictum operates in much more complicated ways than W.C. could have imagined. The chief schemer, Jake Vig (Edward Burns), and his crew work their confusing stratagem against a rich variety of antagonists --- a high-level gangster who calls himself The King (Dustin Hoffman), a rapacious banker (Robert Forster), and a couple of crooked cops. The number of victims, the depth of their criminality, the treachery they all contemplate, and the double-crossing they all practice suggest not only their suitability for the scam, but also the pervasiveness of corruption in the world of the film. Naturally, this world provides a fertile environment for a clever and dedicated confidence man.

            From its opening sequences, the picture practices a kind of candid deception on the audience, fooling the viewers with an orchestrated scheme that it audaciously repeats at the end, so that the confidence game tricks both the characters and the theatergoers. The plot unfolds through a series of flashbacks, anecdotes, recollections, and stories within stories, all of them included within the narrative of Jake Vig. Responding to a rather intense interrogation, quite literally under the gun, Jake, in effect, confesses, which explains the intermittent voice-over explanation of the action.

            That action begins with a lucrative payoff for a clever bit of trickery, and ends with a spectacular profit from an immensely complicated plan. In between, Jake and his associates maneuver through a minefield of problems, all of which illustrate Jake's consistently engaging lecture on the art and science of the confidence game.

            Not realizing the money in the opening payoff belongs to a gangster, Jake and his crew initially dupe The King's accountant out of $150,000. This leads to Jake's offer to reimburse the money, with interest, if The King will invest in his proposal.

            Jake has conceived a convoluted plan, involving a fake business, a payoff to a bank executive, the bribery of a customs agent, and the laundering of $5 million in an offshore bank. To keep the scheme in motion, Jake must juggle the threat from The King and elude the surveillance of the two cops, who have betrayed him to a federal agent (Andy Garcia) dedicated to nailing Jake for a previous encounter.

            Despite the complicated script and the usual legion of problems, errors, and misfortunes that crop up along the way, Confidence proceeds with admirable urgency, maintaining a consistently high level of interest through its numerous shifts in time and movements through space. The movie never really stands still long enough to bog down in questions of plausibility or logic, but hums along as smoothly as one of Jake's clever, crooked projects. Even when the action pauses, the script fills in the gaps with bits of character development, idiosyncratic personalities, and offbeat dialogue.

            The picture's tendency to keep the audience off balance underlines and illuminates Jake's repeated statement that constructing a con is like putting on a play. The movie shows him, in effect, writing the script, casting the parts, rehearsing his actors, and directing the finished production. With a nice irony, the director of Confidence also demonstrates that making a film resembles a con game, as well. In the manner of his protagonist, Foley employs a good deal of sleight of hand, misdirection, and outright fakery to fool the audience along with the con's victims, so that the confidence trick literally becomes the work itself.

            Edward Burns uses his weak, whispery voice to good advantage in the role of Jake, suggesting the offhand easiness of the inspired con artist, who never seems terribly worried, even when his life is at stake, or fully serious when he contemplates his own revenge on the gangster. In a curious interpretation of an allegedly frightening gangster, Dustin Hoffman fidgets, bullies, teases, threatens, and flirts. The King is apparently bisexual and suffering from attention deficit disorder and hyperactivity. The character seems simultaneously malevolent and comical, a strange and compelling counterpart to Burns' casual underplaying. Hoffman's performance is indicative of the strength of an outstanding actor willing to take a supporting part. He also dominates just about every moment he appears on camera.

            Hoffman's performance also underlines the other meaning of confidence, which Jake mentions frequently: the necessary assurance of a professional, the smooth meshing of acting with a solid script and a clever director. Confidence indeed.

Confidence, starring Edward Burns, Andy Garcia, Rachel Weisz, Paul Giamatti, Dustin Hoffman, Donal Logue, Luis Guzman, Morris Chestnut, Franky G., Robert Forster; written by Doug Jung; directed by James Foley. Cinemark Tinseltown; Loews Webster: Pittsford Plaza Cinema; Regal Culver Ridge; Regal Eastview; Regal Henrietta.

You can hear George and his movie reviews on WXXI-FM 91.5 Fridays at 7:15 a.m., rerun on Saturdays at 11:15 a.m.


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