Brazilian actor Wagner Moura became a star in his home country and made a name for himself internationally with his role 2007’s gritty Elite Squad as Captain Nascimento, a brutal officer in Rio’s notorious paramilitary police force, the BOPE. In VIPS, he finds himself on the other side of the law playing Marcelo, a charismatic con-man who bluffs his way into being everything from a pilot to a drug smuggler, a millionaire playboy and even, briefly, the leader of a prison gang. Produced by Frenando Meirelles (who directed City of God and The Constant Gardner) and directed by journeyman Tamika Melo, VIPs is a breezy, lighthearted psychological drama with splashes of adventure and humor and a captivating lead performance, but it nevertheless fails to do justice to its rich material or compelling main character.
Based loosely around true events in the life of notorious Brazilian con-man Marcelo Nascimento da Rocha, VIPs is anchored by the virtuosic lead performance of Wagner Moura, who is utterly believable as the chameleon-like main character who manages to coast to unbelievable heights (sometimes literally) purely on a winning smile, an ingratiating personality, and sheer charm. Marcelo sheds personalities and identities as easily as a snake shedding its skin, sometimes perhaps not even realizing he’s doing it, and Moura does a fine job of embodying each one while still keeping the audience anchored to the character underneath.
The film opens with Marcelo as a teenager in high school (a surprisingly successful feat for Moura, who is in his mid-30s) who discovers he has a gift for mimicry and impersonation and begins using it in minor ways to suit his whims. Dreaming of becoming a dashing, globetrotting airline pilot like the long-lost father he idolizes, Marcelo runs away from home and charms his way into a gig washing planes and learning how to fly under the tutelage of an small-time air-freight operator, taking the name Dumont (immediately recognizable to Brazilians as a reference to Alberto Santos-Dumont.)
One fateful day, through a stroke of dumb luck and some skilled mimicry, he’s able to abscond with one of his boss’s planes and test his mettle flying a hair-raising run for a local drug trafficker named Baña (Juliano Cazarré). Impressed with Marcelo’s guts, Baña takes him on as a pilot and introduces him to the seedy world of smuggling and organized crime.
In what are the film’s best and most-engaging sequences, Marcelo makes a name for himself smuggling drugs and guns around the seamier corners of South America, until his pathological penchant for braggadocio and fabricating tall tales about himself inevitably brings too much attention from the authorities. Booted from the organization and on the lam, any sensible person would lay low, but Marcelo’s all-consuming quest for fame and a sense of self-worth push him into the greatest and most high-profile scheme of his career: impersonating Henrique Constantino, the brother of one of Brazil’s most powerful airline magnates.
Amazingly, Marcelo accomplishes this by simply landing a helicopter in the middle of the airline’s Carnival party in Rio, walking out, and acting like he’s supposed to be there. Soon he’s hobnobbing with TV stars and getting fawned over by the media. The adoring attention and playboy lifestyle is the ultimate rush for Marcelo, but it’s clear even to him that such a public, high profile scam is a kamikaze mission.
Without revealing too much, things play out about how you’d expect for Marcelo, and the film hits most of the standard narrative beats familiar to most other movies in the con-man/impersonator genre. Films about characters like Marcelo tend to function best as acting showcases and character studies, with only just enough minimal plotting to make it possible for the audience to keep watching them spin their schemes and fool people who should know better (see 2006’s underrated Color Me Kubrick).
Even bearing that in mind, though, the third act of VIPS feels remarkably perfunctory, and Marcelo’s inevitable catharsis after being cornered by the authorities feels unearned and mechanical. The sudden resolution of his decade-long identity crisis seems to have more to do with where it falls in the film’s running time than it does with a legitimate psychological or emotional journey. The entire film feels like a setup in search of a great climax that never comes. (In addition, it takes a surprising turn in the last five minutes which, although a bold narrative choice that makes for a memorable ending, has the unfortunate effect of leaving the audience imagining a more exciting and interesting movie than the one they just watched.)
Despite these narrative weaknesses, though, director Tonika Melo deserves credit for coaxing a nuanced and impressive acting job out of Wagner Moura. With Marcelo appearing in almost every scene of the film, Melo knows enough to keep his camera locked on Moura’s tour de force performance, and spends an impressive amount of time shooting his star in close-up, allowing the audience to focus on the cracks in Marcelo’s slick façade and little moments of self doubt that flicker across his face, which Moura expertly reveals throughout the course of the film.
Buoyed along by Moura’s performance (not to mention a fun period soundtrack that features a handful of tunes by late ‘80s Brazilian superstars Legião Urbana), VIPs serves its function as a bit of well-crafted middlebrow fun that showcases Wagner Moura as a talented actor and capable leading man with more to offer audiences than just another handsome, stone-faced action star. If nothing else, hopefully it can serve as a calling card that Moura can use to seek more challenging fare in the future.
The DVD from Entertainment One includes about a half-hour of interviews with Wagner Moura, Toniko Melo, Fernando Meirelles, and others that are slightly more informative and detailed than the average EPK promotional interviews.