Movie Review
Criminal poster
By Lee Tistaert     Published September 7, 2004
US Release: September 10, 2004

Directed by: Gregory Jacobs
Starring: John C. Reilly , Diego Luna

Running Time: 87 minutes
Domestic Box Office: $923,426
The questions are right in front of you, and barely any characters have enough backbone to make you really want to put the pieces together.
Criminal is the first film in which John C. Reilly has secured a headlining role; for years he has played supporting parts in many films and usually has been memorable as a side guy. Though this film will be touted in that specific regard, Reilly did star in Paul Thomas Anderson?s debut feature, Hard Eight, as one of the main characters. However, not a lot of people have seen that film, and so the comparison will probably be drawn by few.

I walked into this screening unaware as to what this film would offer, but knew that Reilly was in it and that it also featured Diego Luna from Y Tu Mama Tambien (B) and The Terminal (B). I also had noticed that it was a con flick and was produced by Steven Soderbergh and George Clooney, which was enough to push me forward and give the film a shot.

In its first few minutes, I was quite looking forward to what Criminal would offer in terms of story, acting, and cinematography; it has a classy introduction, and you?re not exactly sure what is to come or who the characters are. Once the story progressed and was getting to the point, though, I was beginning to fear that this might be a pretty dull flick.

This is an extreme minimalist film in which its entire running time involves two people walking (and driving) the streets of Los Angeles, talking. This is a dialogue-heavy experiment where we simply watch two thieves talk about how they would pull off various crimes and the possibilities involved, and dare each other into another thievery.

The film?s emphasis on dialogue could be a great opportunity for slick writing in the league of Ocean?s 11 (B+) where instead of the action of the game being the main attraction, the words being spoken are part of the fun. And being a fan of Reilly?s career as a scene-stealer, the idea of listening to this guy talk for a while seemed very promising to me.

Unfortunately, as clever as Criminal tries to be, the story treads on being dull. There are some interesting dynamics between the relationship of Reilly and Luna?s characters, but the cons that they attempt to pull are rarely fascinating, and there are very few effective surprises in store. The film tries to make a one-two punch a few times and surprise you, but I never had a true connection to the two main characters, which made it hard to care for the plot points that develop.

In the first act, the two artists pull the same basic trick repeatedly, and it becomes repetitive very quickly. Once they begin to trust each other, they get more diverse in their planning, and we are expected to root for their success. This tactic can work, but we must like the duo as characters, or at the very least, as actors; had it not been for Reilly and Luna?s presence, this would?ve been a nearly intolerable film for me to watch.

Criminal reminded me of Ash Wednesday, a feature that has been seen by about thirty people worldwide; I rented it when it came out on DVD because I had been a fan of filmmaker Edward Burns? previous movie, Sidewalks of New York. Burns disappointed me enormously with his very boring foundation in the story, and the movie?s torturously repetitive pace; not much happens, and I really didn?t care about the main characters or the actors.

What saves Criminal is that it has two appealing leads, but what drowns it is its storytelling. Though writer/director Gregory Jacobs tries to spice things up occasionally in that regard, his continuous effort of making you wonder who?s to trust and who?s not to trust was too much of an obvious plot device to push things forward. These movies need that layer, but this film hands it over in a plain manner; the questions are right in front of you, and barely any characters have enough backbone to make you really want to put the pieces together.

Coincidentally, the writing style does run somewhat parallel to Paul Thomas Anderson?s script for Hard Eight, and that is a film I liked quite a bit. What I admire about Hard Eight is Anderson?s ability to hand over his characters naturally, and we watch for the sheer pleasure of crisp dialogue and fine acting. That film unfolds in a manner where we?re not aware of everyone?s back-story right away, and yet we?re given enough details to chug along further in curiosity.

Criminal lacks that curiosity factor, as while we have two likable leads, this duo is stuck with an inappropriate script considering their talent. What also really annoyed me was that Jacobs inserted a very clich? and straightforward musical score. This tone immediately tells you it?s a con men flick, and yet when those specific chords are heard not much is even happening onscreen. The film?s limited production values can also reinforce on various occasions the lack of substance within; but then again, it can also depend on how emotionally attached you are.

When I went into this screening I hadn?t even heard of this film before, and considering the two actors involved I was intrigued. And when I checked a release schedule beforehand and noticed that its limited release debut is early September ? just a few weeks away from this observation ? I started to wonder why I hadn?t heard anything about this feature. After seeing Criminal, the answer seems to come clear: Reilly and Luna might be a recognizable duo, but this film might not survive for much more than a week given its limited entertainment value.
Lee's Grade: C+
Lee's Overall Grading: 3025 graded movies
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