Picks and Pans Review: The Grifters

updated 02/11/1991 AT 01:00 AM EST

originally published 02/11/1991 AT 01:00 AM EST

Annette Bening, John Cusack, Anjelica Huston

Keep a prime slot open in the next Misanthropy Film Festival.

As far as cheery, uplifting views of humanity go, this film about con games—big, small and aren't we all running a con in one way or another—ranks right up there with the most cynical of them. And, philosophy aside, The Grifters is provocative and polished enough to merit mention in the same paragraph with the memorable 1948 film The Treasure of the Sierra Madre (which was directed by Huston's father, John, and co-starred her grandfather Walter).

Huston, Cusack (Say Anything) and Bening (Valmont) play con artists involved in a sex-scam triangle spiced by the fact that Huston and Cusack are mom and son—this sex triangle has an asterisk for incest.

Huston works for a Baltimore mobster bookie, placing racetrack bets on long shots to keep the odds down; she is also skimming piles of money for herself. Cusack is a small-timer, but his sleight of hand and dice-game scams are building him a pretty bankroll. He is also romancing Bening, who is searching for a new partner because her old one burned out after fleecing too many marks in an investment grift. (See this movie and you'll start talking like the new George Raft or Gloria Grahame too.)

These three haven't exactly forgotten what love is—Huston saves Cusack's life in a burst of maternal emotion by sending him to a hospital. As Bening slinks into his bed, Cusack tells her, "You smell good, like a bitch in her hothouse." "What a beautiful thing to say," she replies sweetly.

But the sentiments that tie these three together run mostly to how-do-I-use-thee?/ let-me-count-the-ways.

Directed by Stephen (Dangerous Liaisons) Frears, the film was adapted by mystery writer Donald Westlake from Jim Thompson's 1963 novel. Its grim universe doesn't suggest that much sweetness exists anywhere else either; the only other major players are Henry (Arachnophohia) Jones, gossipy manager of a fleabag hotel where Cusack lives, and Pat (Batman) Hingle, Huston's amorally vicious boss.

The three stars give nuanced performances, with Frears using even the tiniest of their gestures. And however much you decry the dismal world the movie portrays, you'll find yourself doing a little personal morality inventory as you leave the theater: Just what am I capable of doing, and how much would it take to make me do it? (R)

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