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'The Score'

Cast overshadows content in 'The Score'

Friday, July 13, 2001

By Ron Weiskind Post-Gazette Movie Editor

When you cast a movie with the best film actors of three generations -- Marlon Brando, Robert De Niro and Edward Norton -- and throw in Angela Bassett for good measure, you may not consider the one drawback in such an arrangement. Ask any political debate manager about the problem of heightened expectations.

    'The Score'

RATING: R, for language.

STARRING: Robert De Niro, Edward Norton, Marlon Brando, Angela Bassett.


CRITIC'S CALL: 3 stars.


"The Score" is a perfectly watchable heist flick that doesn't break any new ground in terms of plot or atmosphere. That's one reason you hire great actors -- to lift a movie above the pack, to create vivid characters who transcend common genres.

The movie keeps tantalizing us with that possibility. Director Frank Oz dips his toe in the murky waters of character development but stops short of taking the plunge. As a result, the story he doesn't tell seems like it might be more interesting than the one he does.

That leaves "The Score" to rise or fall on the mechanics of planning and perpetrating the theft. We know it will appear to be all but impossible. We know that something -- many things -- will go wrong. We know that De Niro, whose character does most of the physical work, will be left hanging precariously at a crucial point in the operation, asking himself, "What was I thinking?"

He plays Nick Wells, who lives in Montreal and owns a jazz club there. But he's also an expert safecracker who lives by these rules: never steal anything in your hometown, never take an unnecessary risk, always work alone. He breaks all three commandments at the behest of his financial partner, Max (Brando), who needs Nick for a multimillion-dollar deal -- the theft of a gold scepter from the basement of the closely guarded Montreal customs house.

Nick wants to turn in his tools and go legit, especially since it would convince his part-time lady love, Diane (Bassett), to become his full-time squeeze. But Max is insistent -- it turns out he needs the money more than Nick knows -- and so is the third man on the gig, Jack Teller (Norton), a young man on the make who works in the building and has everything planned out.

Director Oz goes out of his way to establish Nick's penchant for privacy. The opening scene shows him pulling another, more commonplace job. Once he has the goods, he drives off to what a road sign announces as the last stop in the States. He hops into a boat to cross into Canada and makes his roundabout way to Montreal, where he drops his tools into a hidden room inside another hidden room before making his way to his dark-paneled, lamplit apartment like an animal burrowing into his lair, one step ahead of a predator.

In later scenes in the apartment, Oz keeps isolating De Niro in a corner of the screen -- at one point, Bassett is so far on the other side that she might be in another country. His illegal activities aside, what makes him so private, so cautious, so averse to risk? That's one story the movie never tells.

Brando, who plays Max like Sydney Greenstreet trying to break out of the closet, playfully hints at an interior life, and the movie lets us in to the degree that it displays him at one point without the veneer, cowering near what looks like an empty swimming pool in the basement of his mansion.

Norton's character, younger and less burdened by experience, is more easily pegged. But Jack gets to live a double life by pretending to be retarded in his job as a janitor at the customs house, the better to snoop around without drawing suspicion.

Director Oz tries to keep the movie as low-key and professional as Nick, but as a result there are fewer sparks among the three protagonists than we might wish, especially with these actors playing the roles. Bassett's talents are largely wasted in what turns out to be a minor part.

The movie starts slowly and builds momentum gradually, with its tensest moments coming during a payoff in a public park and during the heist itself. It passed the crucial test of making me want to see what happens next. I enjoyed the film and the people in it.

Still, I couldn't help feeling that if everyone -- including Oz, the cast members and screenwriters Kario Salem, Lem Dobbs and Scott Marshall Smith -- had tried a little harder, "The Score" might have been memorable instead of just competent.

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