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MOVIE REVIEW : 'Crimes' a Look at Con Man's Life


"Imaginary Crimes," set in the early '60s, is about the family life of a con man. It's a terrific subject for a movie but, the way it's been done here, the story is mildewed with good intentions. It's a respectable piece of work, well acted, but it's not terribly exciting. The filmmakers seem to be flaunting what sensitive souls they are--more sensitive, even, than the characters in their movie.

Harvey Keitel plays Ray Weiler, whose wife (played, in flashbacks, by Kelly Lynch) has died, leaving him in charge of two young daughters, Sonya, the elder (Fairuza Balk), and Greta (Elisabeth Moss). Ray is the kind of guy who is constantly cooking up get-rich-quick schemes and then wheedling out of the inevitable fallout. Landlords, moneylenders and partners dog his elusive tracks; his daughters are schooled in keeping creditors at bay with well-rehearsed ruses.

The emotional core of the film is Ray's abiding love for his daughters despite his responsibility in damaging their lives. The one thing he does not do--at least not voluntarily--is desert them. In his own way he wants to do right by them--he wants them to be princesses. But he's hopelessly mired in a small-timer's mind-set. Compared to Ray, Willy Loman was a slickster.

Keitel doesn't pull out all of his stops, and his nuanced reticence is intriguing. (As a change of pace from his recent movies, he doesn't drop his pants, either.) As usual, he takes chances--clearly this is a role he cares about. Ray speaks in bookish cadences, as if he had memorized his words; it's the actor's unstressed way of bringing out Ray's insecurities.

But Keitel overvalues Ray's lumpishness; he's such a Common Man that, after a while, you long for something a bit more uncommon. Keitel is very good at getting at the self-hatred in Ray's weaselly soul--Ray even exploits his dead wife's name in order to get Sonya into a prestigious girls' school. (What makes the scene work is that we can tell Ray still loves his wife.) But the film surrounds Ray in a nimbus of heartfelt intentions, and it tenderizes what might have been a great character--a great performance.

(And, for a film this well-acted, there are some shocking missed opportunities throughout, like the blink-or-you'll-miss-them cameos by Lynch, Diane Baker and Annette O'Toole.) The relationship between Sonya and Greta is sensitively played; the two actresses share the kind of rapport that can't be faked. Balk's Sonya, whose "poetic" voice-overs sugar the soundtrack, is shell-shocked, yet almost frighteningly vulnerable. She hates her father's consmanship and yet, like him, she holds out for golden opportunity. (In her case, the opportunities, like a college education, are far less pie-in-the-sky than Ray's.) Balk manages the difficult feat of creating a character who is both grimly resilient and fragile, and that combo seems true to the experience of abused children.

Director Anthony Drazan and his screenwriters Kristine Johnson and Davia Nelson based the film on an autobiographical novel by Sheila Ballantyne, and the film has the tentative self-consciousness of "personal" reminiscence movies. Would a real look back to a childhood this ravaged appear so sedate and nostalgic?

Drazan manages the period setting convincingly, and he slides smoothly in and out of the flashbacks, but he doesn't want to take the audience over the edge--into the kind of emotional experience we can't sort out as soon as we leave the theater.

* MPAA rating: PG, for themes and some very mild language. Times guidelines: It includes a scene of children watching their father being roughed up.

'Imaginary Crimes'

Harvey Keitel: Ray Weiler

Fairuza Balk: Sonya

Kelly Lynch: Valery

Vincent D'Onofrio: Mr. Webster

A Morgan Creek Production of a Warner Bros. release. Director Anthony Drazan. Producer James G. Robinson. Executive producers Ted Field, Robert W. Cort, Gary Barber. Screenplay by Kristine Johnson & Davia Nelson, based on the book by Sheila Ballantyne. Cinematographer John J. Campbell. Editor Elizabeth Kling. Costumes Susan Lyall. Music Stephen Endelman. Production design Joseph T. Garrity. Running time: 1 hour, 51 minutes.

* In limited release at the AMC Century 14, 10250 Santa Monica Blvd., Century City; (310) 553-8900.

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