After his recent nice-guy turns in such emotional films as Moonlight Mile, Dustin Hoffman completely reinvents himself in “Confidence.” Playing the film’s villain, a kinky crime boss known as The King, Hoffman conjures forth the spirit of an older, wiser Ratzo Rizzo and leaves a trail of slime that completely immobilizes his co-stars. When we first meet this scruffy, oily little sewer rat, he is furiously channel surfing between horse races, porno films, and CNN newscasts on a wall of surrounding televisions. The King, it would seem, is the natural born poster child for attention deficit disorder.
It comes off as a bit strange, then, that Hoffman emerges as the most human character in “Confidence.” A patchwork quilt equal parts “The Sting,” Pulp Fiction, and Jackie Brown, this tale of con men, double crosses, and mind-bending plot twists features suave Edward Burns as an ambitious grifter named Jake Vig. The opening scenes illustrate what Vig does best, as he and a backup team of crooked cops, pickpockets, and other swell folk swindle a “mark” out of his cash-heavy briefcase.
Unfortunately, the stolen money belongs to The King, and Vig is understandably shaken when one of his crewmembers is dispatched with a bullet to the head, in what appears to be an act of retaliation. Will Vig be next on this angry lowlife’s hit list?
Attempting to patch things up with Hoffman’s underworld kingpin, Vig visits his nemesis face to face. Creating his home base from an incredibly sleazy strip bar filled with barely legal teenaged dancers, The King accepts Vig’s offer to retrieve his money – and then some – through a complex bank loan scam. This time around, Vig’s “mark” is big-fish banker Morgan Price (Robert Forster), a longtime rival of The King.
Assisting Vig in his heist is a motley crew that features Gordo (Paul Giamatti), a buddy with a weak bladder who always seems en route to the nearest men’s room, and Miles (Brian Van Holt), who often spends his share of the take on strippers and lap dances. Lily (Rachel Weisz), a pickpocket whose sexy-tough attitude finds favor with Vig, also joins the team, while a couple of crooked L.A. cops (Donal Logue and Luis Guzman) round out this den of flimflam masters.
To give away the detailed plot blueprint of “Confidence” would be to spoil its many entertaining surprises. Suffice it to say, the watertight wrap-up seems to pass careful scrutiny. As an intricate tangle of loose ends, which are pleasingly tied together during its final scene, the movie is admirable.
Unfortunately, the perpetrators of such crafty swindles are a cynical, bloodless bunch that fails to elicit much sympathy. When Vig and Lily talk a paternal jewelry store owner out of a pair of earrings by convincing him that they know his daughter, it’s meant to be cool and shrewd, but comes across as merely mean-spirited.
Meanwhile, much of the “Confidence”’s dialogue falls all over itself trying to one-up Tarantino’s tart tongue. Before the film’s first scene has ended, we’ve been privy to such verbiage as, “I’ve gotta pinch a loaf,” “Don’t mess up the hoop,” and “You’ve got a lot of sack.” Later on, two men compare family dental plans from the front seats of a sedan, in much the same way that Samuel Jackson and John Travolta waxed philosophical about cross-cultural culinary cuisine in Pulp Fiction. Such rapport was crisp ten years ago, but it sounds awfully familiar this time around.
What isn’t familiar is how Dustin Hoffman embodies the sleaziest role of his career. In what could have been a criminal stereotype, Hoffman plays The King as a toothy slob with the groping, fidgety hands of a chronic sex offender. In one scene, he undoes two shirt buttons, places Weisz’s hand on his chest, and requests that she feel his heartbeat. Soon, he has his own intrusive paw on her flesh, exclaiming, “My God, you’re beautiful.” Later, he grabs Vig’s face with both of his hands, demanding, “Don’t get me scared.” This tactile neediness is far more disturbing and original than anything a typical bruiser thug could have brought to the role.
As a self-assured exercise in style and plotting, I suppose that “Confidence” works. Yet, there’s something emotionally unsatisfying about its characters, as they fleece anyone unfortunate enough to cross their paths. Despite its handsome cinematography, slathered in thick, neo-noir shades of red and blue, the film has no one to root for. Place your bets on Hoffman’s terrific portrayal of a weasely, wisecracking pervert, however, and you’re sure to get your money’s worth.