In Confidence, Edward Burns plays Jake Vig, a con artist whose body temperature runs a few degrees below normal. Even when things seem to go bad, when a would-be partner betrays him with a phone call or a seedy-greedy Dustin Hoffman lays maybe-gay and grubby paws all over him, Burns never breaks a sweat or creases a crack on his handsomely concrete poker face. Perhaps that’s because Jake knows he’s born to win every hand, now matter how awful the flop: His last name, after all, is a derivation of the Yiddish word vyigrysh, which means “winnings” and has been adapted to the more Anglicized “vigorish,” or the shortened and more familiar “vig,” otherwise known as the money skimmed off the top by a bookie after someone has placed a bet. Jake’s been blessed with a good-luck moniker; never, for a moment, do you doubt he’s not going to come out holding five of a kind, even if he does open the film laying in a pool of his own blood, announcing in voiceover he’s been murdered.
What follows, ostensibly, is a flashback tell-all retracing the steps of a hustle gone awry. Suddenly we’re in a bar, where Jake and his crew (Paul Giamatti as Gordo, Brian Van Holt as Miles, Louis Lombardi as Big Al) are staging a brawl to scare off a sucker with a briefcase of cash; they’ll splatter some blood on the dough if that’s what it takes to make him break with the bread. Jake has staged the setup like a theater pro, down to the timed entrance of his on-the-payroll cops (Luis Guzman, Donal Logue) who enter stage left with drawn rifles and threats. It’s all so easy, like taking candy from a dumbass, till it turns out the cash belongs to strip-club owner the King (Hoffman, a right Ratso), whose threats alone have been known to incapacitate the cowardly con man. The King gets his little prince to make up for his bad deeds by swindling someone even higher on the junk-food chain: gangster banker Morgan Price (Robert Forster), who does his biz in the back of a limousine.
Before long Jake picks up new partners (Rachel Weisz as a pickpocket who could double as a dessert topping, and Franky G as the King’s bad lieutenant), old enemies (Andy Garcia, as a fed who’s fed up with being duped by Jake time after time) and Morris Chestnut as a gunman to whom he tells all, till the movie begins to resemble Vig’s Eleven, give or take — though without the slick Vegas sheen of Steven Soderbergh’s all-star razzle-dazzle. (At least director James Foley got to use Guzman, a Soderbergh regular; also, nice to see Garcia trade the casino owner’s designer threads for a crooked cop’s thrift-store tatters.)
Confidence is writer Doug Jung and Foley’s grungy good-time free-for-all, a movie about hustling in which the hustle is almost a moot point; the filmmakers are more concerned with the fun of the con, the thrill of the screw-over. Not even Burns, spilling all at a post-screening Q&A recently, is sure whether the con makes sense by film’s end. (After two viewings, it seems to, but who really cares?)
Foley, whose Glengarry Glen Ross remains the most deft Mamet adaptation put on film (including those films directed by Mamet), digs exploring the relationships between men; he’s all about cadence and hidden meanings, the rhythm of the jive-talker’s bullshit. Burns and his gang ride each other, screw each other (Weisz and Burns especially and, on occasion, literally), and yell at each other, but never without reason or consequence. They’re business partners first and friends second, to the point where you can never believe anything they say to each other, much less anyone else. Giamatti, best known perhaps as Pig Vomit in Private Parts, especially seems to get it; he’s so jittery cigarettes seem to smoke him.
Appropriate that Ed Burns’ first good film (he can act!) is named Confidence; finally he seems comfortable playing leading man, to the point where he can look Hoffman in the eye without coming off like a kid drowning in the deep end. (In 15 Minutes, it always appeared as though Robert De Niro was fifteen seconds from ordering him off the set.) The success of the cinematic swindle depends on him — he’s in every scene, almost — and, for once, he doesn’t give off the aura of a writer-director slumming it in other people’s projects to pay for his own; you’re almost tempted to forgive him for Life or Something Like It. Hoffman, though, is the real gas — the vet getting dopey and loopy and handsy because, hey, what the hell. His King is a royal freak, bawling out sisters for “eating each other out” ’cause it’s sick but encouraging them to be “tasteful” nonetheless. The midnight cowboy rides again.