Stole my time, and my money
Criminal is the American version of the Argentinean hit film, Nueve Reinas (Nine Queens). Unfortunately, it proves, yet again, that Americans are capable of destroying anything. A comparison of the two is not necessary; they are two separate films. However, being that Criminal is based on the screenplay of Nueve Reinas, it truly shows a poor hand at adaptation. Criminal features no inventive quirks, clever dialogue, genuine emotion, or even unique cuts, angles, editing, or gimmicks. Without seeing the Argentinean version, one would find it hard to believe that this bland story was ever successful.
The inaugural effort from director Gregory Jacobs shows a textbook study of film. The elements are so solid that they become boring. The plot is simple. Rodrigo, played by Diego Luna, is a young con man. Richard (John C. Reilly) is a seasoned con man. They strike up a partnership and set out to conquer the world (actually, only Los Angeles). Along their ride of swindles and frauds, we meet some strange secondary characters. Most notable of these is Richard’s sister, Valerie (Maggie Gyllenhaal).
Richard’s home life seems to be crumbling around him. There are small details revealed throughout the film about Valerie and a lawsuit between her and Richard. The two are at odds through the duration of the story. Furthermore, Rodrigo is trying to earn money to pay off his father’s gambling debts. No seriously, it is that clich?.
Cathy Sandrich is to be commended on one of the greatest modern travesties of casting. Apparently riding the wave of 2003’s Anger Management, she cast Reilly as a bad guy (remember Arnie Shankman?), and not a bad guy in the sense of an action movie, just the kind of guy who you want to slap across the face. Now, giving complete and total respect to John C. Reilly, he plays emotional characters flawlessly. But he is susceptible to typecasting, and that is what we have come to expect. He is a genuinely nice guy. You want to feel bad for him. He’s like a big teddy bear. Not here, no sir. He is vulgar, and yet you cannot buy it from him. Reilly is just too good of a guy. This makes the performance flat and unbelievable. So, since the whole plot hinges on the offensiveness of his character, the tower begins to tumble very early on.
The bright spots (and oh do they shine on this dull canvas) are Gyllenhaal and Luna. Luna is adorable in the role and as Reilly tells him, he “looks like a nice guy.” His character is underdeveloped and underwritten, but he uses his lines to their fullest extent. He seems very natural and fluid in front of the camera. His demeanor is just right to play well off of Reilly’s lifeless delivery: Gyllenhaal is quirky. It almost seems like she is reprising her role as Lee Holloway in the spunky Secretary (2002). While her screen time is very limited, she excels in every scene in which she is involved. She is even able to bring some vitality into the blah performance of Reilly when they play face to face. She’s a terrific temptress. No other character is of note, and even the main players are given very little development. They all have conveniently placed back-stories motivating them, but minus a scene or two, there is no emotional involvement in their lives.
The other elements of the film are not poorly executed, but are unspectacular. The movie feels like it might have been good had anyone involved given the slightest bit of creative effort. The camera is played in such a straightforward and uninspired manner that it simply serves to show what is going on. It does not add anything of substance to the film. The picture goes in and out of focus a good deal, it is unclear why — maybe this was supposed to be the stylistic outlet of Jacob’s otherwise steady hand. But besides this annoying effect and a few quick camera moves, there is hardly anything at all to say about the visual style.
The cinematography is adequate. The film did not look bad, but it didn't look particularly good either. The writing is sub-par (surprise, surprise Jacobs co-wrote it), and though it is played almost scene for scene to Nueve Reinas, it cuts out most of the best dialogue. One would hope that a revision would be an improvement over the original. Not this script. The ending is tacked on and is almost insulting to any form of intelligent life in the audience. It’s difficult not to pinch yourself hoping it’s a bad dream.
When all is said and done, this lackluster effort will go down as ultimately forgettable. It is a mediocre crime drama in a vastly overplayed genre. Poor John C. Reilly was just wasted in the wrong part here. He has so much talent. Gyllenhaal and Luna can chalk this up to their growing list of impressive performances, but sadly, when they refer to Criminal in the future, most people won’t know what they are talking about. It was a good thought to bring Argentinean success to America. It just did not work out in this instance.