Greetings again from the darkness. We’ve seen just about every kind of con on the big screen. Heck, we’ve even seen a wide variety of cons play out in real life through politicians and corporate types. The fictional cons provide some entertainment value, as we get to use our sleuthing and deductive skills in an attempt to figure out what’s happening before it actually does. Solving the mystery is often one of the fun pleasures of cinema; however, sometimes, the filmmaker manages to weave such a tangled web that we are better off just sitting back and letting things unfold.
Director Benjamin Caron is known mostly for his TV work on shows like “The Crown” and “Andor”, and here he is working from a script by frequent comedy collaborators Brian Gatewood and Alessandro Tanaka (the writing team behind THE SITTER, 2011, and “Animal Practice”). The film serves as a departure from the norm for all three, and it opens with a definition of the film’s title used as a noun: “one who lives by their wits.” And while there may be very little comical wit on display here, there is plenty of intellectual wit and strategy used by all of the characters. Even the chapters are divided into the character names so that we see things develop through their perspective. It really feels like we are assembling an ever-evolving jigsaw puzzle as the shape of pieces shift in our hand.
Tom (Justice Smith, JURASSIC WORLD: FALLEN KINGDOM, 2018) runs a bookstore in the city and seems to be a really nice guy. We first see him reading Poe, and he stops when the lovely Sandra (Brianna Middleton, THE TENDER BAR, 2021) steps into the store in search of a specific book for her PhD studies. The two hit it off, and this relationship becomes the foundation of the film, even though we rarely see the two together. Max (Sebastian Stan who plays Bucky Barnes in the Avengers movies) is our next chapter. He’s a slick conman who also plays a vital role in the elusive jigsaw puzzle being worked. Mr. Stan proved he could play a creepy dude in last year’s FRESH, and his best work here comes in scenes with Oscar winner Julianne Moore (STILL ALICE, 2014), whose name, Madeline, graces the next chapter. She’s in a relationship with a billionaire (John Lithgow) whose health is fading, and who has a tie to another character in this roster of tricksters.
Who is playing whom? Everyone can’t be the smartest person in the room, right? We are told you can’t cheat an honest man, but I’m not sure if the phrase is incorrect or if there are just no honest people. One thing for sure, in this movie, there are multiple webs of deceit overlapping each other, and the challenge is for viewers to make sense of all the swindling. It’s not really double-crossing when you lose count of how many crosses there have been. For psychological misdirection, it’s tough to beat David Mamet’s 1987 HOUSE OF GAMES. In 1990, THE GRIFTERS was a fun one for small time con artists, but more recently, the two NOW YOU SEE ME movies are just pretending to play in this pool, as they are missing the cleverness required. Director Caron’s film may waver a bit in the final act, and perhaps doesn’t quite earn the ending (a good one that takes us back to THE USUAL SUSPECTS). It seems most will be entertained by the shenanigans of these characters, and these days, that’s a win.
The film will be available on Apple TV+ and playing in select theaters on February 17.
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