*½/**** Image A Sound A-
starring John C. Reilly, Diego Luna, Maggie Gyllenhaal, Peter Mullan
screenplay by Gregory Jacobs & Sam Lowry, based on the screenplay for Nueve reinas by Fabián Bielinsky
directed by Gregory Jacobs
by Walter Chaw As an assistant director, Gregory Jacobs has been involved in so many good projects (his resume includes Miller's Crossing, Hal Hartley's Amateur, and Steven Soderbergh's Solaris) that his directorial debut raises expectations. Too many, perhaps, as Criminal, an adaptation of Argentine director Fabián Bielinsky's Nine Queens, from just a couple of years ago, barely qualifies as something as cut-rate and devalued as one of those cookie-cutter, self-conscious, tedious David Mamet capers. It's badly miscast, with John C. Reilly in the lead as a well-travelled huckster on the prowl for that one Big Score that looms like El Dorado for the larcenous breed. (Reilly is fine as a cuckolded husband, nonplussed by a woman he doesn't deserve--not so fine as someone who lives by trip-hammer reflex and quicksilver wit.) And in place of the oil-derrick rhythms of a caper flick, there's something suspiciously like manners and formalism in Criminal--it's a jazz improvisation performed by robots and metered by a drum machine. All the elements are there, but there's no soul to it.
Take Maggie Gyllenhaal's costuming. Playing Reilly's sister, the concierge for a four-star hotel who's been betrayed by her brother in a matter of their parents' estate, she looks uncomfortable and pinched. It's an unease that translates into suspicion for us. We don't believe that she would look like so stuffed in the position that she's in, and so we don't believe that her hands are clean in a movie that declares early and often that of all the marks in the picture, the biggest mark is supposed to be you. The Big Score in question is to take place in Gyllenhaal's hotel, as big shot communications tycoon Peter Mullan (playing a character modelled after Rupert Murdoch), a known currency collector, is in town for just another twenty-four hours. Luckily for our anti-heroes (Reilly and Diego Luna, the naive sidekick whose involvement in the scheme is one for the unlikely meet-cute ages), old acquaintance Ochoa (Zitto Kazann) happens to have an exact duplicate of a Civil War bond (the loot was stamps in Bielinsky's original) but needs the guys to pull off the dupe. Shenanigans ensue.
There's no joy to Criminal: the little stings feel mean-spirited (the bilking of a waitress, the tricking of a grandmother), and the big sting feels forced and, ultimately, mean-spirited, too. Worse, it's not a delicious kind of mean-spirited, just the small-minded variety that distracts. Vérité where it should be mischievous, the picture asks to be considered as something serious instead of something whimsical--the kind of miscalculation that leads to Reilly as a slick con-man and sensuous, gamine Gyllenhaal as a starched harridan. The only way that the blithe unlikelihoods of Criminal could ever work, that its choreography of extremes could ever gel, is if there were an understanding somewhere along the way that either we're dealing with a fantasy or, conversely, that we're working (as Nine Queens did) with the more malleable clay of social parable.
Criminal is Basic with a B-list cast and a slightly more prestigious pedigree. The twists are straight, the kinkiness of Reilly selling out his sister for a few hundred large strangely bland. It has something to do with a lack of surprise and even more to do with the idea that Criminal is a retread and feels like it. The original wasn't fantastic, but it did have a social compass and a sense of style; Jacobs's remake is the work of a guy who might have been straitjacketed by his reputation into making something cautious and workmanlike. This is a heist without risk, after all, translating a modest foreign success into a modest domestic failure. Originally published: September 24, 2004.
by Bill Chambers Warner doesn't seem too interested in furnishing the titles they release under their indie banner with DVD supplements, presenting Criminal on a typically barren platter distinguished only by an impeccable 1.78:1 anamorphic widescreen transfer of the film itself. Chris Menges's catalogue-lush cinematography looks ravishing, while the Dolby Digital 5.1 audio sounds warm and clear as bell. (It's not a memorable mix, but Alex Wurman's score makes nice use of the rear channels.) Trailers for Criminal, We Don't Live Here Anymore, and Heather Graham's Rosemary's Baby Xerox Blessed round out the disc. Originally published: May 5, 2005.