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Who's Zooming Who?

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After booming in the 1990s the new millennium has seen America's economy hover like a winged insect with one leg stuck to fly paper. The Japanese are pouring their money into gold. Argentina's attempt to peg its own currency to the U.S. dollar worked for a while, but more recently, holding anything of value seemed safer than possessing cash. And thereby hangs a tale. Argentine writer/director Fabian Bielinsky's Nine Queens is only incidentally interested in his country's economic peril, but it provides a telling backdrop for an intricate crime story that will remind viewers of work by David Mamet.

Nine Queens is the story of two grifters who meet in a Buenos Aires convenience store. Juan (Gaston Pauls) is a second-generation confidence man. He learned three-card monte and other small-time swindles from his father, who is now in prison. As the film opens, Juan is in a frenzy of scams trying to raise money to get his dad out of jail. In the convenience store he works the old change trick, pocketing a quick $50, then tries to double his money without leaving the store when a shift change brings on a new cashier. Greed is not good, in Juan's case, and he's quickly confronted by an angry store manager and then "arrested" by a "police detective" who just happens to be in the store. Only the "police detective" is actually a con man himself, Marcos (Ricardo Darin), a veteran crook who cheats little old ladies out of their welfare checks and befuddled waiters out of their tips. Marcos steps up to save Juan because he's looking for a partner and thinks the younger man fits the bill.

Establishing their street cred, Juan and Marcos demonstrate their bags of tricks including the torn currency scam and the stuck elevator heist. The money is easy, but there's not much of it. Then a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity falls in their laps when an old forger named Sandler (Oscar Nunez) enlists their assistance in selling a sheet of phony stamps (the Nine Queens) to Vidal Gandolfo (Ignasi Abadal), a wealthy collector. Juan and Marcos can split nearly a half-million dollars if they pull the con off, somewhat less if they honor promised percentages to some collaborators. Of course, since they are both grifters, neither entirely trusts the other. And we don't trust either one.

David Mamet has made a fortune with this kind of material in films like The House of Games, The Spanish Prisoner and Heist. But frankly, our familiarity with Mamet's elaborate puzzles of deception and disloyalty diminish (though not eliminate) our ability to enjoy pictures of this particular kind. The great delight of George Roy Hill's Oscar-winning The Sting was that we didn't see the trick coming; the ultimate scam was the one David Ward's screenplay worked on the viewer. But that was three decades ago, and I wonder if the film would fool us as successfully today. The brilliant ending of Lawrence Kasdan's Body Heat would, I think. Kasdan executes a switcheroo so unexpected it takes our breath away, and his timing is so deft, he triumphantly lays down his cards while we're still gasping and before we can backtrack and figure things out. The film at issue has its undeniable pleasures, but it's hardly in a class with Body Heat, which holds its ultimate trick to the closing credits. In a dubious narrative decision, Nine Queens tips its hand pretty decisively with 20 minutes still to go.

Moreover, Nine Queens is undermined by a flaw common, for instance, to David Fincher's The Game, whose complicated plotting ultimately requires its characters to behave in precise ways that are by no means predictable. Michael Douglas' manipulated character has to do exactly what he does do, or brother Sean Penn's provocation will end in tragedy rather than rejuvenating entertainment. And that fact curdles our enjoyment of the picture almost as soon as it's over. The reaction isn't as negative in Nine Queens because Bielinsky's light touch works so much better than Fincher's ponderousness and pretension. Nonetheless, three propositions stand before us from the outset: Marcos is scamming Juan, Juan is scamming Marcos, or someone else, Gandolfo or Marcos' angry sister, Valeria (Leticia Bredice), is scamming one or both of them. And when the picture finally reveals what's what, the revelation requires that the victim has unpredictably responded exactly and only as he has.

Still, for the satisfactorily long haul, Nine Queens keeps us guessing. And along the way it creates quick sketches of an array of minor characters and a nice contrast between its principals. Juan has qualms about milking his marks, preferring to sting corporate employees rather than unattached individuals. Far more jaded, but at the same time more realistic, Marcos understands that Juan's conscience worries about a difference without a distinction. However the plot plays out, it's fascinating to reflect on who is conning whom and who is conning himself.

Marcos (Ricardo Darin), Juan (Gaston Pauls) and Valeria (Leticia Bredice) become entangled in a chase for the Nine Queens.
  • Marcos (Ricardo Darin), Juan (Gaston Pauls) and Valeria (Leticia Bredice) become entangled in a chase for the Nine Queens.

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