Friday, January 3, 2014

In Theaters/On VOD: THE BEST OFFER (2014)

(Italy - 2013/US release: 2014)

Written and directed by Giuseppe Tornatore.  Cast: Geoffrey Rush, Jim Sturgess, Donald Sutherland, Sylvia Hoeks, Philip Jackson, Dermot Crowley, Kiruna Stammel, Liya Kebede.  (R, 131 mins)

There's a strong Hitchcockian influence on the first half of the Best Film winner at the 2013 David di Donatello Awards, the Italian equivalent of the Oscar. The latest film from CINEMA PARADISO director Giuseppe Tornatore is equal parts psychological thriller and sometimes corny love story, the pieces of the puzzle eventually fitting if you heed the advice of one character who states "If you're patient, everything falls into place."  In one of his best performances, Geoffrey Rush is Virgil Oldman, an abrasive, erudite auctioneer and art appraiser who lives in such a bubble that he even has his own dinnerware (complete with his own "V.O." crest on the glassware) set aside for him at the posh restaurants he frequents.  A germphobe, Virgil resists all human contact that isn't necessary, and only interacts with his staff on a need-to basis.  He's been running a scam for years with his accomplice Billy (Donald Sutherland), a failed artist who places the winning bids on the high-quality forgeries that Virgil auctions off at events--their scam is that the paintings are the real deal and Virgil tells no one, paying Billy to bid on the priceless art at much cheaper forgery prices for Virgil to acquire and hoard in a secret room in his house.  Soon, Virgil is contacted by Claire Ibbitsen (Sylvia Hoeks), a 27-year-old agoraphobic heiress and shut-in who hasn't left her bedroom in 12 years.  Her parents died a year earlier and the family villa has fallen into a dilapidated state.  Through a series of phone calls that grow increasingly testy due to Virgil's impatience and snobbery, Claire reveals that she wants her parents' extensive art and furniture collection to be catalogued, appraised, and sold at auction. 

Virgil's huffy exasperation changes to genuine intrigue when he keeps finding discarded pieces of a machine scattered about the premises.  Consulting Robert (Jim Sturgess), a fix-it associate of his, Virgil deduces that it's an automaton of some sort, but can't figure out why stray pieces are in the basement of Claire's villa.  He later sees the gears of the mystery device turn up in a painting he's asked to evaluate.  As time goes on, dealing with Claire from outside her locked room, the prickly Virgil begins to develop genuine feelings for the young woman, eventually drawing her out of her shell--and out of her room--with romantic advice from the affable Robert.  The more mechanical pieces Virgil finds, the more Robert is able to reassemble the automaton, during which time the more empathetically human Virgil becomes.  But, as one might say in the trailer if this was a dumbed-down American thriller, in a world of forgery where nothing is as it seems...

Tornatore's set-up is tricky and requires some patience and an exercise of good faith from the viewer.  It's not a slowly-paced film--indeed, it would probably be a moderately popular thriller if it was widely released--but it starts to stumble and bumble midway through until you realize that it's by design.  As Virgil loosens up from his usual uptight, asshole self (Rush sinks his teeth into Virgil's sneering pomposity--just listen to the way he snaps "Alright...put her through!" when he's told Claire is on the line), he starts to sound and act like a lovestruck puppy, from his getting romantic tips from Robert to the repetitive, foot-stomping arguments he and Claire have from opposite sides of a door ("I think you're more interested in my furniture and paintings than me!" she exclaims) to a groaner of a conversation Virgil has with his assistant (Dermot Crowley), who tells him "Women are like taking part in an auction...you never know if yours will be the best offer" to Virgil standing in the middle of the villa courtyard and screaming "Claire!" at the top of his lungs.  This also holds in the advice he gets from Billy:  "Human emotions are like works of art...they can be forged."  It doesn't take a film historian to see that someone is playing Virgil and that he's either too dense or too in love to realize it.  Tornatore also throws in some obvious symbolism with mirrors and you just know that an autistic, physically-disabled young woman (Kiruna Stammel) who's always observing everything from the bar down the street from Claire's villa will somehow prominently figure into the plot. 

That the wrap-up is a bit on the predictable side doesn't make it any less effective, thanks to Rush's outstanding performance.  He carries the entire film on his shoulders even when it occasionally threatens to drag him down.  You'll probably figure out what is going to happen long before Virgil does, but the how is very well-handled by Tornatore, who doesn't lay everything out and expects you to have paid attention because small details matter with THE BEST OFFER.  Without going too deep into spoiler territory, for such a smart man, it is admittedly hard to buy Virgil not figuring out that something else is amiss--even after he's told not to trust someone, he continues to trust them implicitly, and can never seem to notice the machinations taking place around him.  Whether it's that he's too blinded by his infatuation with Claire or that we as viewers have been trained to expect the unexpected to the point that the unexpected is now an expectation is up for debate.  Still, with Rush's stellar performance, the cinematography by Fabio Zamarion, who captures the stunning beauty of the mostly ornate settings as well as the depressing ruins of the Ibbitsen villa (if you like vintage Italian films set in decayed mansions, this will be pure eye candy), and the majestic score by the maestro Ennio Morricone (complete with operatically haunting Edda Dell'Orso vocals), THE BEST OFFER is a lot better than its release in the early January dumping ground would lead you to believe. 

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