Background Noise: Ocean’s 8 and The Lost Art of the Con Movie
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TODAY’S NOISE: The Con Movie
Is there a more satisfying genre in film than the big con movie? Probably not. You can have your action adventures and sappy romances, just give me a twisty con flick and I’m in for the night. There’s just something endlessly gratifying about a scrappy group of desperates who outwit a nasty at the top of a huge fortune, beating all the odds in walking away with all the loot. I mean, damn, that’s just fun.
Coming this summer is the latest, an all-female take on the Ocean’s series, this one called Ocean’s 8 (that’s star Cate Blanchett above), and while it’s certainly got a great cast and loads of potential, the trailer doesn’t exactly inspire as well as it should. There’s something missing, and it’s all a little too clean and obvious. Either way, it got me thinking about the con movie and it’s evolution over the past few decades, something that I think has sort of clung to a central theme but lost a lot of its edge in recent years. Think about the George Clooney Ocean movies, the recipe 8 is following and you get the ida. These are safe, fun, adventures that have no consequences, just laughs, and they mostly work because of it. Not a one of us thinks the bad guys are gong to win. However, they make me long for something with more depth, more twists, and more darkness, and there’s probably no better example than a film from 1990 that is all edge.
THE GRIFTERS: One of the most celebrated con films ever made is Stephen Frears‘ thriller The Grifters, with John Cusack, Angelica Houston, and Annette Bening. This is really a standout, one of the few ‘serious’ movies in the genre, one populated by many, many comedies. In it, a young, naive Roy Dillon (Cusack) is at the mercy of two women in his life while he makes a dangerous shift from the short con to the long con, one he’s not truly ready to handle. It’s sharply-written and supremely well-acted, with Houston especially good. For example, there’s a scene with lemons that will absolutely terrify you, and if lemons can do that, then you know you’re in a good flick. However, pay attention to the dynamic between Houston and Bening who compete for control and affection of Roy. It’s some of the best of its kind you’ll ever see.
WHATS THE DIFFERENCE?
‘Con’ is short for Confidence Trick, and there are typically two variations:
The Short Con: This is a fast trick, done in a few minutes, meant to quickly get all the money from the target’s pockets. Think of a card trick or a street corner shell game.
The Long Con: This a scam that takes a lot of time and usually involves a number of people, props, locations, costumes, and more. This is for stripping a wealthy person of all their money.
GETTING FISHY: Not that there’s no room for comedy in the genre. Jumping back a few years before The Grifters released is a film that many probably wouldn’t even think of as a con movie, mostly because it succeeds more as a comedy than a crime caper. Charles Crichton‘s A Fish Called Wanda is a comedic tour de force with four hysterical performances from John Cleese, Michael Palin, Jamie Lee Curtis, and an Oscar-winning turn from Kevin Kline. The movie centers on some disorganized crooks (Palin, Curtis and Kline) who try to outwit an easily-manipulated barrister (Cleese) in order to acquire some lost loot. It’s a remarkably clever and well-written film that excels on the chemistry of the leads and some very funny bits of physical comedy, most especially from Kline who is practically manic. If you haven’t seen this, stop whatever you are doing and check this off your list. Or add it to your list. Just put it on a list. Then watch it.
SCOUNDRELS: Speaking of all-female reboots, the 1988 Frank Oz con movie Dirty Rotten Scoundrels is getting a fresh coat as well, called Nasty Women and also starring Anne Hathaway, who has a role in Ocean’s 8. The original is a devious little comedy with Michael Caine and Steve Martin set in the south of France about a couple of con artists, one a master of the short and the other the long, who decide to try and con a rich young heiress (Glenne Headly), though things aren’t always as they seem. This is pure comedy gold with Martin at the top of his game and Caine delivering a rare turn, earning plenty of solid laughs. Martin and a trident are flat out the funniest thing ever, long before Steve Carrell got a laugh with one in Anchorman: The Legend of Ron Burgundy (2004). But if we’re going to talk con movies, there’s really only one that needs to be said.
THE BEST CON: After working on Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid (1969), itself a groundbreaking take on the western genre, director George Roy Hill got his two highly-charismatic stars (Paul Newman and Robert Redford) together one more time for another genre-bending movie that some consider even better than their first pairing. Wickedly complex and all about theatrics, The Sting constantly is one of those twisters that keeps you guessing from the start, wondering about what you’re really seeing and how true any line of dialog really is. Characters are always glancing and nodding and subversively communicating to each other, and you get so you don’t want to trust a one of them, and that’s the point. What makes it works so well though is how much it fools the audience while never making it dishonest. That’s really the magic of this classic long con comedy, it’s ability to trick with a smile, leaving those watching happy to get bamboozled. That I typed the word ‘bamboozled’ tells you already how much of an impact the movie has.
Set during the Great Depression, it follows Johnny Hooker (Redford), a small time grifter who has run into some big trouble. He heads to Chicago on the advice of his former partner and joins up with professional con man Henry Gondorff (Newman), who himself is hiding from the FBI. Together, they plot a “big con” on the infamously notorious mob boss Doyle Lonnegan (Robert Shaw) by involving him in a horse race-betting scheme, but there are twists and secrets even we aren’t in on until the end, and it ends up being really, one of the most enjoyable movie experience you’ll ever see. This is pitch perfect cinema and the best darned con movie ever made.
So I’m not entirely worried about Ocean’s 8, a film that will surely entertain but probably do nothing innovative, playing it ultra-safe, with all kinds of amusing scenes of comedy where the women get into jams and finagle their way free, ultimately getting what they are after. That’s the state of con movies, especially these big ensemble films where huge stars with loads of charisma get together, playing off their contrasting personalities. There are no challenges, no real surprises, and no greater payoff. They are just a collection of good looking celebrities following the formula. Still, I’m a sucker for the long con flick, excited about looking for clues and seeing if I can follow the game through. I want to be fooled, to question whether what I’m seeing is part of the con or something they lost control of. Perhaps the genre has been overdone and there are no more moments left that accomplish this, and the con movie has plateaued, though I think there is hope. Every once in a while we get a movie like Rian Johnson‘s (yup, The Last Jedi guy) The Bloom Brothers and that makes all things right in the world again. You might want to put that on your list, too.