As clever as a firkin full of simians and as stylish as they come, writer-director Fabian Bielensky (a former assistant director with one previous screenplay, La Sonambula, to his credit) has fashioned what may just be at the top of the list of con movies. It’s certainly the perfect summer entertainment — a refreshing antidote to the deluge of blockbuster titles that evidence more cash outlay than actual brains.
Bielinsky starts with a beguiling set-up involving the meeting of two small-time confidence tricksters, the somewhat reluctant novice Juan (Gaston Pauls) and the hard-as-nails, totally amoral Marcos (Ricardo Darin). The pair team up for a series of clever, but decidedly small-scale scams, until a golden opportunity falls into their laps — a chance to sell excellent forgeries of the fabled “Nine Queens,” an uncut sheet of nine defective stamps issued by the Weimar Republic in the 1920s. (The plot is very likely inspired by Stanley Donen’s classic thrill-comedy, Charade, but doesn’t copy the earlier film in any sense, apart from the stamps and the breezy style.) The deal must be concluded quickly, since the prospective buyer is leaving Buenos Aires the following morning — which is actually a key to the sale itself, since the buyer won’t have the time to have the stamps subjected to thorough laboratory analysis.
The idea sounds simple, but in this twisty-curvy tale, nothing is simple — and even less is ever quite what it seems. This is the sort of intricate con movie David Mamet would like to concoct, but never quite manages. Bielinsky deftly sidesteps nearly all the pitfalls that Mamet created for himself in last year’s Heist. The reasons are fairly simple: Bielinsky trusts his audience more than Mamet seems to, and is less inclined to tip his hand. Both men are practicing a kind of cinematic sleight-of-hand, but Bielinsky never pauses long enough for the viewer to take in just how many balls he’s juggling. Mamet, on the other hand, is too in love with his own cleverness not to want to point it out along the way, finally undermining himself to a degree where it becomes all too easy to guess what the next trick will be. That was the curse of the generally enjoyable Heist (along with the sense that Mamet was constantly patting himself on the back for key lines in the film). It is almost nowhere in evidence in Nine Queens, though perhaps the film’s final turn takes just a shade too long in its set-up. Even there, if you figure the gist of it out, it’s almost a certainty that you won’t catch every aspect of it. Bielinsky’s film is invariably playful and less self-important than Mamet’s work tends to be, and that’s also very much in his favor here. The results are something like Heist done right, crossed with the mood of Steven Soderbergh’s Ocean’s 11. In other words, it’s a movie of sheer, unmarred pleasure. It’s invariably good-humored and populated with delightfully quirky characters and situations — and even one of the best and most satisfying running gags (concerning a song that Juan can’t quite recall) I’ve encountered in ages.
While one of the most delightful things about the film is its economical structure (nothing is for nothing in Nine Queens), Bielinsky comes across as a major stylist in the bargain. His use of moving camera is always adept and, on occasion, astonishing. The lead actors — especially Ricardo Darin as the self-confessed “heartless bastard,” Marco — could not be better. It’s all appealing and fresh and it won’t insult your intelligence. There are quite a few worthwhile films playing currently, but this one belongs at the top of the list. Don’t miss it.