I want to like Spike, I really do. He has a natural cinematic imagination, something you can see from the very beginning. And he is flamboyant with the camera which I appreciate when the confidence is rewarded.
Plus other things. He seems to have backed off his “I’m not an Oscar-winner because I’m black” routine, as demeaning as any “Bamboozled“ riff. The title is ambiguously intelligent, and I thought perhaps we would have some sort of folding on the nature of man imposed on the heist genre. (We did get that plus the energetic camera with “Good Thief”.) Also, whenever Dafoe steps into a project, my anticipation level rises because sometimes these are so intelligently shaped that I imagine religions being founded on them.
I overlooked the problems I knew would come with Denzil and Jodi. I’m sure they are nice people and solid workers and all that. But actors come in distinct types, having made different choices about whether they will try to enter our souls and if so, how. Both of these defer.
Here’s the good: in the parts of this where the overlong script calls for energy, he supplies it masterfully. In scenes that would normally drag, he gives us a mildly dancing camera. Nice. And if you like heist puzzles, you might get engaged in guessing how our mastermind will pull this off. It is a sort of detective story form imposed on the actual crime, and it inexplicably starts with that mastermind speaking directly to the audience via a camera he has arranged. This intelligently overlaps with videotaped interviews of the hostages that are woven through the recounting of the crime. Following Ted’s law, the nature of these interviews is separated in abstract distance from the main action the same degree as the action from us.
All that will be enough for some viewers.
The main problem is the script. These things are cast as a battle of wits among giants. In this case the two giants are supposed to be our genius criminal and the Denzel character who faces off against him. Also in the mix is an inexplicable character played by Jodi Foster. She is supposed to be a master fixer who can make anything happen.
We don’t know much about her. Actually what we are shown gives us little confidence in her powers. So the task of elevating the character to the level of our genius crook is up to her. I sincerely think she would flub it even if the script supported her. She’s just not a powerful or interesting person. The script supports the master manipulative abilities of the Plummer character slightly more, but it slips off quickly, about the time we see him in the zoom-pullback shot (used twice!), where his grinning face is shown while a character explains what is so evil about him.
The second problem is the pacing. Spike is a local intuitive. He famously goes by his gut when approaching a scene. We can see this in many scenes in all his work: they just tingle. But he has no sense for the long form, the composition of the whole movie. This means he can sort of get by when his audience is TeeVee watchers and the point of the thing is that the character is drifting. But this film should be a fine-tuned assembly, as masterfully managed as the heist within. Soderbergh knows how to fold his moviemaking on an elaborate heist. Spike wouldn’t understand it if you drew it on a napkin for him.
And a final problem is the facts in the case. When these things are all over, we get a thrill in putting it all together. Oh, that’s why the crooks spent time mingling with the hostages. But to play this game, the facts have to add up, like the lock gears used heavily in the title sequence. And they don’t. There are huge questions that get in the way. Shucks. Advertising this as a thinking person’s thriller doesn’t make it so.
Posted in 2006
Ted’s Evaluation — 2 of 3: Has some interesting elements.