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Movie Review

In on the Con in 'Nine Queens'

April 19, 2002|KEVIN THOMAS | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Argentine director Fabian Bielinsky's "Nine Queens" is a deliciously funny and fiendishly clever con-man comedy that begins on a note of ingenuity that it then sustains with the tension of a high-wire act.

Here's how it goes: A young man, Juan (Gaston Pauls), gets caught trying to pull off a bill-changing scam in a Buenos Aires convenience store. Another man, Marcos (Ricardo Darin), steps up, shows his police badge and promptly arrests Juan, telling the clerk that the stolen cash will be returned from the police station. Out on the street, Marcos, handing the money back to Juan, is soon sizing up the younger man he has never before met as a potential partner in crime.

Suave, debonair Marcos is an irrepressible, practiced swindler with a cynical view of human nature. Juan seems more conflicted, explaining that he's learned the tricks from his con-man father but employs them only out of desperation. In no time, Marcos is steamrolling Juan's uncertainties, but Juan surprises his new partner-mentor with his ability to think on his feet.

An amusing clutch of plot convolutions drops a potential windfall in the laps of our new con team in the form of the "Nine Queens," a sheet of nine rare Weimar Republic stamps that could bring them close to half a million dollars.

Complications escalate, increasing the challenges facing Marcos and Juan in snagging their payday. Bielinsky, however, does not merely milk their predicament for laughs but has done so in an admirably organic way. In other words, everything occurs at the juncture of fate and character, in an inspired manner that leaves the film remarkably free from contrivance.

"Nine Queens" is also graceful and fluid for all the verbal sparring between Marcos and Juan, and between them and others they encounter. What's more, most of the film takes place in one locale, the vast Buenos Aires Hilton, where Marcos' sister Valeria (Leticia Bredice) works as a concierge and regards her crooked brother with hostility--and where the team's key mark (Ignasi Abadal) happens to be staying.

It is unusual and fortuitous that an actor in a foreign film gets to consolidate a strong impression in one film and then follow it up while the first picture is still in release. That's what's happened to Darin, who first in the title role of the Oscar-nominated "Son of the Bride" and now in "Nine Queens" emerges as a focused, edgy actor adroit at expressing character flaws beneath a glib surface. The boyish-looking Pauls is the perfect foil for Darin's oily Marcos, and Bielinsky, a film veteran in an assured feature directing debut, fills the screen with a gallery of vivid, largely raffish types, one of them played by veteran star Elsa Berenguer.

It is hard to watch "Nine Queens" without being reminded of the sly sleight-of-hand films David Mamet has made with his friend, master prestidigitator Ricky Jay. "Nine Queens" has Hollywood remake written all over it, and no one could be better able to pull it off than Mamet. At the same time, "Nine Queens" is the kind of foreign film that appeals to those who don't usually sit still for subtitles.

MPAA rating: R, for language. Times guidelines: amoral themes, some blunt language; suitable for mature older children.

'Nine Queens'

Ricardo Darin...Marcos

Gaston Pauls...Juan

Leticia Bredice...Valeria

Ignasi Abadal...Vidal Gandolfo

Tomas Fonzi...Federico

A Sony Pictures Classics release of a Patagonik Film Group production. Writer-director Fabian Bielinsky. Executive producer Pablo Bossi. Cinematographer Marcelo Camorino. Editor Sergio Zottola. Costumes Monica Toschi. Art director Marcelo Salvioli. In Spanish with English subtitles. Running time: 1 hour, 55 minutes.

Exclusively at the Royal, 11253 Santa Monica Blvd., West Los Angeles, (310) 477-5581; the Rialto, 1023 Fair Oaks Ave., South Pasadena, (626) 799-9567; and the University 6 Cinema Art, Campus Drive opposite UC Irvine, (949) 854-8811.

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