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(2003) ** 1/2 R
98 min. Lions Gate. Director: James Foley. Cast: Edward Burns, Rachel Weisz, Andy Garcia, Dustin Hoffman, Paul Giamatti.

At the beginning of James Foley's Confidence, Edward Burns intones in voice-over, "So I'm dead. And I think it's because of this redhead." Your tolerance for Burns, self-conscious voice-over, and half-baked David Mamet-by-way-of-Elmore Leonard neo-noir heist pictures will determine whether you find Confidence required viewing or merely a not-unpleasant 98-minute diversion.

Foley's spotty career includes the superior acting exercises At Close Range and Glengarry Glen Ross and lowlights The Chamber and The Corruptor. Smelling Mamet on Doug Jung's byzantine plotting and profanity-adorned humor, Foley turned up his primary-color mood lights, hired Dustin Hoffman to play a sleazy crimelord, and tilted his forehead against the wind. This turns out to be a pretty wise approach, and Confidence comes on, appealingly, like gangbusters.

Ever-bland Burns plays Jake Vig, a grifter whose team needs a big score to make things right with Hoffman's so-called King. The scam, by necessity, involves handling a rogue's gallery of touchy friends or foes: crooked cops (Donal Logue and Luis Guzmán), King's FBI-turncoat enforcer (Andy Garcia), and, naturally, a dame (Rachel Weisz's Lily). The usual up, down, backwards and sideways plot movements serve the heist yarn, the sort which must always include pronouncements like the one describing the con as "like a game of chess...You have to see that deep."

The problem with Confidence is that it never breaks through its superior (and infinitely more flavorful) inspirations to become distinctive in its own right. One of Confidence's best scenes--a nifty scam in a jewelry store--recalls the short-form-con schooling of pictures like Mamet's House of Games. The freak-out omen of a bird recalls the "hat on a bed" rant in Drugstore Cowboy.

Confidence's most distinctive element--a typically filigreed turn by Hoffman--is also its most inorganic. Under other conditions, any grizzled character actor could play this nothing part. That Hoffman plays it is, I suppose, a saving grace, but one that's clearly beneath the actor. As such, the performance--which emphasizes a blend of business horse sense and soulless, immoral rampancy--reeks of fast-dancing improvisation out of sync with the film's more pedestrian plot machinations. The film seems to stop cold for Hoffman's best scene: a chill-inducing set of moves put on a petrified Weisz.

In the broad strokes, Confidence's plot switches are easy to smell, though certain particulars may pleasingly elude audiences in the good old-fashioned way, and players like Brian Van Holt, Paul Giamatti, Robert Forster, Logue, Guzmán, and Garcia add a charge to the proceedings. But as Burns repeatedly natters on the soundtrack, money is "that little itch you need to scratch," and Confidence accordingly seems more like time-marking commerce than a piece of art with its own point of view.

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