Nick Wells (Robert De Niro) is slick. The first time you see him in The Score, he’s breaking into a safe. Not just any safe, but an expensive and hard-to-break one inside a fine Boston mansion-y-looking home where there’s a party going on downstairs. It’s so clever, you see: the sounds of the party—music, conversation, laughter—disguise the noise is making with his drills and his super-fancy but still sorta clattery tools. He’s dressed in chic thief-guy black, he’s got his gear in a nifty made-to-order bag, and he’s got a helium canister marked “Beacon Hill Balloons.” If he’s discovered, he’s coming to help with the party. Like I say, slick.
This first scene is all about working tensions. It has that good old-fashioned caper movie feel: Nick works, framed closely, his hands are deft, his drill is powerful. The camera cuts to the party down below, then back to Nick, again in close-up, his hands, his drill, and then to a brief threat to him. The film is setting you up as much as it’s setting up plot or character, hooking you up emotionally with Nick, so you’re anxious for him, the criminal. You’re also impressed as he makes his getaway, a long journey from the States to Montreal, where Nick has a well-appointed apartment over a jazz club, called, as if to illustrate his homesickness, “NYC.” He’s friendly with the bartender and manager. Business is good. Upstairs, you get your first good look at Nick, in a slow zoom to his face while he settles back in his armchair. The next morning, he greets the white-haired lady who owns the shop on his block: “Bon jour, madame.”
All this is smart, isn’t it? Rather than using Canada to stand in for some too-expensive-to-shoot-there U.S. location, The Score is honest about its choice. Yeah, this smooth, jazz-loving, wealthy guy, he lives in Canada—the part where they speak French—and he likes it there. So far, so much basic movie-making: the shots are shadowy, for the most part, too close or too long to give you a lot of access to this guy, and the music is jazzy trumpet with beat. It’s deftly manipulative, laudably tidy. And though it might not be what you’d expect from director Frank Oz (the former voice of Miss Piggy and the man who, in some other lifetime apparently, directed Little Shop of Horrors and The Indian in the Cupboard), it’s good to see him exercise options. He did make Bowfinger a couple of years back, and Eddie Murphy is nothing if not slick. But still.
The Score displays a kind of toughness and economy that Oz’s previous movies haven’t. This new attitude may be a function of grappling with a script that has gone through a few permutations and touch-ups, credited to Kario Salem (Don King In America), Lem Dobbs (The Limey), and Scott Marshall Smith (Men of Honor). And the plot does call for a certain toughness. Nick has a longtime (25 years) relationship with his fence, Max (Marlon Brando), and there’s a new kid, Jack (Edward Norton). Together, they plan a theft that would be impossible for any other gang, full of twists and turns and difficulties. As you’ve no doubt heard already, this threesome comprises three generations of the greatest American actors, yadda yadda. And they are very good, despite reports of disagreements between Brando and Oz on the set. I saw Edward Norton on Letterman during the film’s opening week, and he insisted these reports were overblown, that everyone just wanted to make the best movie possible. At the same time, there’s something compelling about the story that Brando showed up on the set with bleached hair and a flaming affect (the character is gay, yes) or that once he and Oz started fighting, he called the director “Miss Piggy.”
This feuding gossip is actually related to the film’s thematic, um, thrust. It’s about boys engaged in a traditionally boy plot, boys who test one another, who can’t get along but must. Nick, Max, and Jack are caught up in a plot that resembles most caper film plots. The guys have to trust one another to get the job done, but they don’t really trust one another. Their stakes are high. Nick, you find out right off, is looking for this big-deal job to be his last (and you know what that means). Jack is cocky, presumes too much and annoys the two older men (Norton does another version of his Primal Fear chameleon-kid, cunning and creepy). But the kid brings the old guys the job outline, a job that is—like all jobs are in such situations—too amazing to pass up. They’re going to steal a “priceless” 16th-century bejeweled scepter that’s been waylaid in a Montreal Customs building (where Jack works/poses as a slightly mentally challenged janitor named “Brian”). Here the security is just lax enough that the prize looks gettable, with a few risks of course, to make the whole enterprise reminiscent of The French Connection or The Thomas Crown Affair or whatever your favorite caper-thriller-heist film might be. And so, you see a lot of preparations: the casing of the joint, the getting of security codes, the emerging suspicions, the planning and the plotting, the posturing and the fretting.
The Score is full of fine tensions and taut performances. It’s also familiar. In fact, that familiarity may be exactly what makes it so slick—the film delivers what a caper movie is supposed to deliver (plot turns, a couple of violent eruptions, sweaty upper lips, high tech gadgetry, and a little treachery among the caper-makers) and avoids what has been reigning at the box office recently (digital brilliance, impossible stunts, extraordinary explosions from 12 angles, puke and poo jokes). In other words, familiarity and predictability—old school narrative values—are not a bad thing, but they do manifest a particular way of measuring quality.
And this brings me to my major grievance with The Score, the Girlfriend. With all these boys running around and sometimes into one another, you do need to have a girl visible in the mix so you can be assured that the boys are straight—it’s boy-movie-making 101, a very traditional plot point indeed. Here the girlfriend is Diana, an airline flight attendant played by none other than Angela Bassett. Now, when I saw the trailer for The Score, I was led to think that Bassett was featured prominently: she acts all tough with De Niro in one scene (even using a curse word, like all good caper-dames), as if she’s in on the job. But no. Diana is the dullest of Girlfriends: she looks great in her terrycloth robe, she loves her man Nick, but is wary of his dangerous occupation, and so, puts the girlfriend pressure on him to quit. You know, he has a decision to make, a choice between her, all luscious and thick-white-terry-cloth-robed, and the adrenalin rush of the big-ticket theft. This all leaves me wondering what happened to Angela Bassett’s choices—after playing Tina and pumping up her arms, after being the tough bodyguard Mace in Strange Days and the tough spacegirl Kaela in Supernova (despite the fact that she did have to act like she was in love with those annoying wussy-boys Ralph Fiennes and James Spader), not to mention starring in those very lucrative Terry McMillan movies, and then Boesman & Lena, well . . . you would just hope that she’d have a few more options, other than playing the Girlfriend.