Wouldn’t it be great if confidence games were as easy in real life as they are in the movies? Imagine being able to get away with that bill-switching nonsense John Cusack tried in The Grifters—showing the bartender a $20, then handing him a $10 while he wasn’t paying attention. You’d never pay retail again, what with your dexterity—and the mind-control strategy that somehow prevents bartenders from looking at money when they put it in the register. You could apply it to other things—switching jobs or long-distance plans or parents—and nobody would be the wiser as you clawed your way to the tax bracket where you don’t pay taxes.
Sadly, it’s never ever that easy. That’s why you see so few Lamborghinis on the street. These films aren’t based on actual crime, of course. Sinister people who are this smart and resourceful and charismatic exist, but they’re real-estate developers or hedge-fund managers or boxing promoters who have enough sense not to buy ugly yellow sports cars. These films are pure celluloid confections—tasty, but with an aftertaste of fuzzy logic that limits their use in our cinematic diets.
What Jim Thompson probably started and David Mamet wore out, first-time Argentinian writer-director Fabian Bielinsky has extended to another entertaining length in Nine Queens, his story about a gaggle of con men and the gradual excavation of the various heists they’re carrying off under each other’s noses.
Usually, these films are too clever for their own good. That’s the case with the labyrinthine script of Bielinsky, who got his film made by winning a contest similar to the one run by HBO’s Project Greenlight that yielded the touchy-feely yawner Stolen Summer. It’s a slick, steady jaunt between the orange cones of the familiar heist-caper drills, but in striving for a sheen of individuality, Bielinsky has made things so complicated and so logic-strained that it’s difficult to excuse every leap. With a couple fewer twists and some more impressive turns in the lead roles, it could have been something special.
The film opens with Juan (Gastón Pauls), a hustler as small-time as his haircut, as he gets caught in a more complicated version of that bill-switching scam. He’s rescued from a vengeful convenience-store clerk by Marcos (Ricardo Darín), another wise guy who saves Juan by pretending to be a cop and scooting him out of there. Once they catch their breath, Marcos lectures Juan on the perils of greed—and then they seem to stumble into the opportunity to pull a scheme regarding rare stamps known as the “Nine Queens.” Without saying too much, it’s an intricate counterfeiting scam, and it involves the participation of Valeria (Leticia Bredice), Marcos’ sister, against a rich drunken mark.
There are echoes of Mamet’s The Spanish Prisoner in the film’s austere tone and its distinctive setting. Buenos Aires, Nine Queens’ teeming backdrop, is just as entertaining as many portions of the film. Just as last year’s Amores Perros showed American audiences unfamiliar sides of Mexico City, Nine Queens takes us through a revelatory array of scenes in Argentina’s capital city.
The script can’t be faulted until its third act; up until then, it’s a spare, quick romp that’s only done in by over-complication that doesn’t allow it to hold up under the hindsight scrutiny that separates the good films from the great ones. This one collapses like an Argentinian savings account, but there’s much fun along the way.
There’s also an element of absurdist humor that arises from the performances of Pauls and Bredice, whose characters apparently begin to fall for each another. In one of the film’s better cons, we’re wondering if each is fooling the other’s heart. If only it were that easy to bamboozle pretty girls or good-looking men. Who would need change from a phantom $20 bill?