Rated R. Running time: 1 hour 45 min.
Our content ratings (1-10): Violence 5; Language 5; Sex/Nudity 2.
Our star rating (1-5): 3
And his master commended the dishonest manager because he had acted shrewdly; for the children of this age are more shrewd in dealing with their own generation than are the children of light.
Con man Nicky Spurgeon (Will Smith) is as crooked as the steward in the parable in his dealings with his “marks.” He steals from them with no qualms. Like the screen full of Marvel Comics superheroes, Nicky is incredibly gifted. However his gift is not some form of physical power, but mental, in that he can spot details of victims that help him predict how they will behave, and he can misdirect the focus of their attention so that he can steal a watch, wallet, or even a fancy ring.
One night he is sipping a drink alone at a table in a New York City bar he sees a beautiful young blonde woman (Margot Robbie) who has slipped a wallet from a customer. She is at the bar with another man. The guy is obviously under the influence, so she comes to Nicky’s table. Introducing herself as Jess, she induces him to go upstairs to her hotel room—and it’s not to admire the wallpaper or the view. Suddenly the man bursts into the room brandishing a gun, threatening to shoot Nicky. Jess says he’s her husband. Realizing what’s really going on, Nicky claims that he’s got cancer, and that shooting him would be a favor. The would-be conman is himself conned, lowering the gun and saying he can’t shoot a man dying of cancer. The smarter Jesse realizes that they themselves have been had. Before he leaves Nicky explains to them what they should have done had they wanted to be successful in robbing him.
Thus begins the relationship between Jesse and Nicky, she later on discovering him working with a sophisticated gang in New Orleans, first ripping off wallets from those on the streets, and then working the huge Super Dome where thousands are gathered. The schemes are cleverly elaborate, and Jesse is a quick learner. It becomes obvious that for big time gains team work is vital, the lifter of wallet or jewelry immediately passing the item on to an accomplice, who quickly slips it to a third. Thus if either of the first two thieves are stopped, they will have no incriminating evidence on their persons. Jesse proves equally adept at pick pocketing, so she is accepted onto the team. At the Superdome she witnesses Nicky’s incredibly elaborate scheme, one that snatches victory from seeming defeat. They make out, but then Nicky breaks off their relationship because he does not like to mix business and romance, only to resume it a few years later in South America where he is working a big scam on the owners of racecars.
This genre of film (including such classics as The Sting, Paper Moon or the recent The Wolf of Wall Street) requires us to go against our accepted notions of right and wrong and root for the protagonist. It is a little like the situation in Christ’s parable about the deceptive steward who feathers his nest at the expense of his boss so that the debtors he has benefited will take him in when he is tossed out on his ear for his embezzlement of funds. Paul Newman easily won us over, and so does the charming Will Smith. Sometimes the con artist is changed by something higher than his lust for money. In the case of Harold Hill in the tuneful musical The Music Man, it is the love of a good woman willing to sacrifice her own principles to save him from exposure and jail—Marian the Librarian, tearing out the page of a book that would have disproved Hill’s claimed credential as a music instructor.
In this film, directed by Glenn Ficarra and John Requa, Jesse is by no means like Marian, but she is desirable enough for Nicky to rethink his go it alone philosophy. There is an intriguing plot twist at the climax that leaves Jesse and a wounded Nicky broke but together. However, given their values and disdain for ordinary folk, do you believe that they will remain penniless for long—and do you really believe that they will seek their new fortune through honest work?
This piffle of a film nonetheless could start a discussion about the title—how we need to focus upon details, indeed, how we should focus on the right details of life and not be misled by minor ones. Given their self-centered strivings, what meaning will such couples as Nicky and Jesse, possessing such great mental gifts, find in their lives? Or is the assertion that those who save their lives will lose them, and…” meant just for suckers? After all, look what happened to the guy who first said those words! Focusing on too many films like this one could easily lead to cynicism.
The review with a set of discussion questions will be in the April Visual Parables.