Thursday, January 2, 2014

Art, Automatons, Loneliness, Nudity: The Best Offer Is Worth Watching, But Hard To Get Excited For Watching Again!

The Good: Decent acting, Wonderful directing, Interesting characters
The Bad: Slow build-up to a stark resolution
The Basics: The Best Offer is a smart film that builds up to a reversal in the final fifteen minutes that makes perfect sense, but still feels surprisingly unsatisfying for all that precedes it.

As the new year begins, I find myself starting the year with independent cinema, as opposed to the current blockbusters. I’m not sure what I expected when I sat down to watch The Best Offer, I suppose I was secretly hoping to discover this year’s The Red Violin (reviewed here!), but what I found was very much the archetype of a foreign independent film. Indie films tend to be broken down (by me, at least) into two groups: professionally-made movies that have an decidedly artistic bent whereby they work to make a statement using the full artistry of film or small films by virtually unknown producers/directors/actors/writers that are produced inexpensively and illustrate the gumption and fortitude of those involved by bucking the studio system without any real hope of breakout success. The Best Offer is certainly the former; it is a beautifully-shot, well-acted movie, but one that has very limited appeal and is geared toward those who enjoy thought-provoking works, mood and style, as opposed to those looking for a story where events occur in a timely manner.

From the outset, the conceits in The Best Offer, which is a moody drama from writer/director Giuseppe Tornatore, are evident: Oldman is superstitious and loathes mobile phones. How those conceits will play out when the film’s protagonist is revealed to be a scammer and as he begins developing a relationship with the reclusive Claire Ibitsen makes the film engaging enough to stick with, despite the tone and how long it takes for the mysteries in the movie to actually get established.

Virgil Oldman is an appraiser and auctioneer, the owner of the Oldman’s auction house. Aging and lonely, he is very superstitious and on his birthday has to take the first call of the day he receives. That puts Claire directly in contact with the reclusive auctioneer and Oldman makes an uncharacteristic trip out to visit her parent’s estate to appraise their furniture. Oldman is not entirely above board; he uses his friend Whistler to buy seemingly worthless pieces through the auction house when Oldman recognizes them as lost greats. In that fashion, he has assembled a significant private gallery of portraits. Investigating the run-down Ibbetson Estate, Virgil meets with Fred the housekeeper, and inspects the mansion full of relics.

After bribing Fred for information on Claire and having discovered some intriguing mechanical pieces at the Ibbetson Villa, Virgil is surprised when Claire withdraws her willingness to have Oldman appraise her parents’ estate. When Whistler falls down on a bid and Robert, the mechanical genius who appraises and restores some of Oldman’s finds for him, discovers that gears that Oldman found at the Villa belong to an 18th Century android, Virgil is drawn into the mystery of who Claire is and what her house possesses.

Virgil Oldman is almost instantly characterized as extremely observant and that makes The Best Offer full of intrigue from the outset, despite not much actually happening. Thus, Oldman’s noticing gears around the Villa and stealthily removing them, creates a sense of mystery long before Robert and Virgil realize what they are building. Like so many independent films, The Best Offer is much more concerned with mood and character than with plot development, so the slow unfolding of the relationship between Virgil and Claire is much more what the film is about than the work of Robert (restoring the automaton) or the scams Virgil and Whistler run on Oldman’s clients.

Much of The Best Offer becomes a waiting game for the revelation of what Claire actually looks like and in the process, the movie treads toward the unfortunately familiar. When Virgil breaks down and activates the mobile phone that was gifted to him, the dialogue is very on-the-nose. Oldman is metaconscious in a way that works more from those evaluating the piece, as opposed to coming from a character. Virgil describing himself as rusty and broken is not presented as realistic dialogue.

As well, the smart viewer continues to watch The Best Offer waiting for how the revelation will come and wondering why Virgil Oldman does not get there first. Oldman scours the Ibbetson Villa for pieces of the Automaton and it becomes clear very early on that Claire is leaving the pieces scattered around the Villa to find them. Throughout the process of appraising the objects in the Villa, Claire is leaving the objects for him to find, while Oldman delivers her papers to sign and asks her to trust him. So, Claire and the viewer know Oldman is untrustworthy, but he seems surprised when she resists getting closer to him and trusting his professional opinions after a point.

Geoffrey Rush is characteristically brilliant as Virgil Oldman. When he is not simply reprising his role from The King’s Speech (reviewed here!), Rush is delightfully withdrawn and standoffish. When Oldman becomes stressed enough to start sweating and actually removes his gloves, the performance is unlike anything Rush has done in recent memory. When Rush and Sylvia Hoeks (Claire) have their first inevitable onscreen meeting, Tornatore captures the moment brilliantly. Tornatore uses space brilliantly in the subsequent scene; Claire is treated as another object Oldman covets and the remainder of the film has Rush evolving Oldman into a more human character who struggles to relate to Hoeks’s Claire. Rush is smart enough to make the evolution take enough time to be realistic. He slowly softens his body language and the expressiveness of his eyes.

One of the surprises for me in The Best Offer was Jim Sturgess. Sturgess plays Robert as a smart, creative restoration artist who is completely credible. The supporting role is nowhere near as dynamic as, for example, his role in One Day (reviewed here!), but he still has a strong screen presence and makes his scenes seem instantly significant. Sturgess has a greater role than Donald Sutherland and in The Best Offer he uses the time he has on screen to make the character so many orders more significant than Sutherland, completely stealing the more established actor’s thunder in the movie. In fact, it is Sturgess who pounds home one of the film’s most important lines by delivering it with much more subtlety than one might expect when Robert asks Oldman which he would choose: Claire or the automaton.

The Best Offer is the first film I have seen with Sylvia Hoeks and she is good as Claire. She has the tough task of creating a viable character with her voice alone, as opposed to with any physical presence. Hoeks does a good job and when she is brought on-screen, she manages to be more than just a pretty face. Hoeks has enough gravitas on screen that when Claire goes missing, there is a powerful feeling of loss in the movie; the viewer listens desperately for a hint of her voice and that plays out well under the direction of Tornatore.

Guiseppe Tornatore is an impressive writer and director and The Best Offer looks wonderful, even when it feels slow. The film is characterized by beautiful sets, crisp contrasts in colors (especially black on the stark white European restaurants at the film’s outset) and impressive sound design. But Tornatore keeps shifting what the movie is, which makes it harder to keep engaged. The film builds as a character drama while dabbling in various mysteries, without any one of the conspiratorial elements truly landing. Is the movie building up to a betrayal by Whistler or Robert? How will Claire react to Oldman’s deception in having the automaton rebuilt? The divergence with Claire going missing, all of these fail to have a strong sense of cohesion, despite the fact that The Best Offer maintains a very tight focus on Virgil Oldman.

Ultimately, The Best Offer is good – well acted, intriguing enough, beautifully shot – but it does not resonate after one is done watching it. Having spent two hours with Virgil Oldman on his weird adventure with antiquities and romance, that’s enough; it’s hard to want to rewatch the film, no matter how masterfully it was created and presented.

For other works with Donald Sutherland, please check out my reviews of:
The Hunger Games: Catching Fire
The Hunger Games
Horrible Bosses
Reign Over Me
Ask The Dust
Pride & Prejudice
Cold Mountain
Robert A. Heinlein's The Puppet Masters
Buffy The Vampire Slayer
Ordinary People


For other movie reviews, please visit my Movie Review Index Page for an organized listing!

© 2014 W.L. Swarts. May not be reprinted without permission.
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