An unpretentious drill through the stations of Mametian grift, the Argentine film Nine Queens begins portentously: Juan, a young scam artist (Gastón Pauls), gets caught soaking a convenience store with a change-for-a-hundred routine, only to be rescued by another customer (Ricardo Darin) posing as a cop. Naturally, Darin is the more seasoned and ambitious chiseler, and the pair embark on a one-day partnership, in which the elder statesman will teach the greenhorn a thing or two about venality, gullibility, and the tricks of the trade as we’ve all come to know them from movies like this.
First-time feature director Fabián Bielinsky evidently knows even less about actual criminality than Mamet does, and so Nine Queens has a customarily jovial air but a deficit of flim-flam inventiveness. As they feel each other out and wander through Buenos Aires cheating a few innocent porteños, the film’s barely sublimated question remains which of the two men is the arbiter of a grand scheme to rip the other off, and how. The shell game reaches critical mass with the chance to sell forged Weimar stamps to a millionaire collector about to get booted out of the country.
The semi-transparent layers of deceit—if not all of their details—are visible from miles away; the onion, once peeled, reveals only emptiness. Perhaps we’ve been trained too well by Mamet (and Jim Thompson and Anthony Shaffer); being essentially mechanical, the grift-thriller genre can be quick to bore. (As it is, Bielinsky isn’t very careful—too many scenes, including the first, don’t hold water once you retrace the narrative path.) Otherwise assembled with anonymous efficiency, Nine Queens is also the second film released here within a month starring the quick and supercilious Darin, the Argentine love child Robert De Niro and Peter Riegert never had.
Another emergent neo-genre—the soulless ’70s facsimile—gets an easily dismissible day in court with the concurrence of Bart Freund-lich’s World Traveler and Ethan Hawke’s Chelsea Walls. The ghosts of ‘Nam-era road movies (epitomized by Five Easy Pieces) and post-Cassavetes holy-fool confessionals, respectively, are given cause to rattle their chains anew. Freundlich (whose 1997 debut, The Myth of Fingerprints, may be the most banal “serious” indie about families to ever sucker applause at Sundance) has impassive hero Billy Crudup walk out on his wife and three-year-old son in an unexplained fit of Springsteenian antsiness. He drives, he calls home and hangs up, he picks up passengers, but for the most part it seems he dumped his family for the opportunity to drink roadhouse whiskey in 12 contiguous states. Still, Crudup’s neither defined as an alcoholic nor a working-class malcontent trapped in a socioeconomic straitjacket. Freundlich’s made him a suburban architect, and a cipher.
Let’s consider what Five Easy Pieces didn’t do: It didn’t clog up with cheap symbolism (a car wash is never just a car wash), it didn’t pad its length with sunset landscapes and road signs, it didn’t pretend its hero’s voyages were detached from cultural and class conflicts, it didn’t resolve the unresolvable with dime-store psychology—or resolve itself at all. Freundlich surely doesn’t want us to conclude that Crudup’s vague deadbeat is in fact a dull and self-involved asshole (though it’s confirmed by a sterling James LeGros riff as a prickly high school acquaintance). The movie’s single brilliant invention—Julianne Moore as a used, contentious, profoundly odd floozy on her own magical mystery tour—is finally eviscerated by Freundlich’s freshmanic idea of gotcha scriptwriting.
Only their loved ones know if either Freundlich or Ethan Hawke are die-hard rummies, but their films are unaccountably worshipful of stinky, slobbering drunkenness. Hawke commandeers the Chelsea Hotel with a dreary cast of big-dreamin’, bed-headed nobodies who look like movie stars (Uma Thurman, Rosario Dawson, Robert Sean Leonard), bad-beat-poetry-ejaculating losers (Mark Webber, various exhibitionist walk-ons), and self-introspective tosspots (Kris Kristofferson, Tuesday Weld), all of whom have coolly squalid second-floor rooms right beside the famous neon sign. Cassavetes may have been the avatar of choice, but Dennis Hopper, in his Last Movie days, is the effective influence. Hawke is adapting Nicole Burdette’s play (“It seems impossible!” “What’s impossible?” “You!”), and the digital-video results play like a flatulent teenager’s first discovery of jazz, cigarettes, and hooch.