Vanguard Cinema // 1996 // 90 Minutes // Not Rated
Reviewed by Judge Bryan Pope // April 6th, 2004
A Cannes man with connections but no conscience.
Hollywood received more than its share of cinematic spankings during the '80s and '90s. One of the lesser-known films that had the cajones to take shots at the big boys of Tinseltown was Con Man (or Cannes Man, as it is called in the opening credits). Thanks to Vanguard Cinema's recent DVD treatment, we can find out whether this little independent movie walks away a champ or with a nasty noogie.
Welcome to the 1995 Cannes Film Festival, where legendary and unscrupulous movie producer Sy Lerner has just wagered that he can turn a Johnny Q. Nobody into the most sought-after screenwriter at Cannes before the festival ends. Johnny Q. turns out to be dim-witted Frank Rhinoslavsky, a cab driver/courier who has dreams of writing schlock for Troma. Faster than you can say 'enry 'iggins, Sy has transformed the dim-witted cabbie into Frank Rhino and is passing him off as "the next Hemingway." Soon, hoodwinked movie stars and producers are falling over each other to get a piece of Rhino and his nonexistent screenplay, Con Man.
I imagine Con Man has endured countless comparisons to that other movie from the '90s that ruthlessly skewered Hollywood (Robert Altman's The Player, not Joe Eszterhas' Alan Smithee Film). However, to draw such comparisons does a disservice to what Altman achieved. Altman's movie dug deep into his own rich and turbulent history with Hollywood to unearth some scathing truths about the film industry. With Con Man, director Richard Martini has made a movie that is occasionally funny, but ultimately doesn't have a whole heck of a lot to say.
Interestingly, the movie is least fun when it is taking aim at its primary target: the vacuous nature of the film industry. In one early scene, the funeral for a well-known producer is interrupted by one attendee's cell phone. The person proceeds to take the call, of course. A moment later, a woman creates another disturbance when she frantically tries to shut off her car alarm. These moments of obvious humor don't give us much hope for the rest of the movie.
Then we meet Sy Lerner (Seymour Cassel), and things begin to perk up. Sy is a wily producer who will cheerfully make the most improbable promises to potential investors without blinking an eye. You want the role of the hero in my next picture? It's yours! You want to direct? You got it, babe! It's a wonder this rascal hasn't been tarred, feathered, and run out of town. That's a testament to the guy's charm, not to mention his persistence. Cassel captures these qualities in his lively performance. He makes Sy interesting and likable, while never letting us forget he's a master manipulator who can sell someone like Frank Rhino using pure hype.
Cassel's Sy is also the source of most of Con Man's best jokes, sometimes indirectly. One of Sy's "personal secretaries" fondly recalls him telling her how she "was always on the verge of thought." That's the kind of remark that requires finesse, and only someone like Sy could have pulled it off without getting physically hurt.
Unfortunately, Frank Rhino is not nearly as compelling a character, a problem that is magnified by Francesco Quinn's unexceptional performance. As Frank goes from unknown cabbie to the belle of the ball, we get little sense of what's going through his thick skull. Only toward the end of the film, when Frank is desperately trying to pitch a bogus story idea without Sy's assistance, does Quinn comically convey the character's ineptitude.
Otherwise, I'm afraid there isn't much going on here beyond the expected stargazing. Popping up here and there are Benecio Del Toro, John Malkovich, Treat Williams, and Lara Flynn Boyle, among others. Even the Toxic Avenger makes an appearance. Many of these scenes appear to have been shot on the fly, particularly those with Dennis Hopper and the cast of The Usual Suspects. Martini also convinced Johnny Depp to put in an extended cameo, and it's one of Depp's patented bizarre performances. As a side note, I had no idea Cannes attracted such screen icons as James Brolin and the famous Teddy Z himself, Jon Cryer.
Con Man is presented in 1.33:1 full frame. The packaging doesn't say so, but a little research revealed that this is the film's original aspect ratio. It's an adequate transfer, with few scratches or defects. The colors were sometimes a little faded, but I imagine that's a result of its low-budget, indie roots.
This edition provides audio in Dolby 5.1 surround. Because most of the action takes place outdoors or at crowded restaurants and parties, I was afraid I would lose much of the dialogue. I was wrong. The sound was strong and clear, and I missed only a word or two during the film. This is a good thing since subtitles aren't provided. The rear speakers aren't used, but, with this type of film, that's appropriate.
Extras are scarce, and only one will enhance your viewing experience. That would be the 15-minute introduction by Martini. Martini is very enthusiastic about his work, and his enthusiasm is infectious. He explains where his idea for the movie came from and how he nabbed Cassel and Depp. He even provides an off-the-cuff checklist of things you should take next time you go to the Cannes Film Festival. By the way, the DVD case indicates that the disc includes a commentary, but I suspect the case is referring to this introduction. I searched high and low, and there was not a running commentary to be found.
After this, we get a few outtakes of Depp and Jim Jarmusch, but the picture is horrible and the outtakes dull. You won't miss much if you skip them.
Vanguard serves up six trailers, two of which are for Con Man. The remaining trailers are for the indie films Allie & Me, Hard Luck, Flickering Lights and Ambush.
Con Man's humor isn't as wicked as it needs to be, but that's not its biggest problem. It doesn't say a word about the most important players in the industry: those of us who pay to go see these people's movies. For a movie about the movies, that's a critical oversight. Instead, it puts all of its energy into pointing out the artificiality of Hollywood, a revelation that will come as no surprise to the movie's intended audience.
Hollywood politics have been covered before, often with more satisfying results. Con Man delivers a few solid laughs and features a shrewd performance from Cassel, but its story is paper thin and its message ho hum. The $30 list price is steep, especially considering the disc's lack of substantial extras, so I would recommend it only as a rental.
Vanguard did a nice job with the transfers, and they at least made an effort to provide some extras, slim as they are. They're free to go.
As for Con Man itself? It ought to be locked away until it has something more substantial to say, but Sy says I can have the romantic lead and a producer credit in his next picture, Justice of Love, if I let the movie go with just a slap on the wrist. Sy, baby, you've got it!
Hooray for Hollywood!
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Scales of Justice
Studio: Vanguard Cinema
* Full Frame
* Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround (English)
Running Time: 90 Minutes
Release Year: 1996
MPAA Rating: Not Rated