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Ideally a film starring Robert De Niro and Marlon Brando would be something of a cultural event, and movie buffs would be champing at the bit to see what two of the greatest actors of the last fifty years might bring out in each other. But a “cultural event” is precisely what Frank Oz’s The Score isn’t. Instead, it’s a mish-mash of genre conventions, and the two stars aren’t given strong enough roles or direction to release any chemistry between them. In this affable but disastrously cliched heist picture, Edward Norton, Jr. picks the pockets of his more famous costars while their heads are turned and walks off with the movie.
De Niro plays Nick Wells, a jazz-club owner by day and master safecracker by night. Nick is doing fine in life, but his stewardess girlfriend, Diane (a badly underused Angela Bassett), won’t settle down with him until he gives up his criminal activities. However, Nick’s fence and mentor, Max (Marlon Brando), has lined up one final score that would cement Nick’s security: an antique golden scepter, worth tens of millions of dollars, that’s residing in a vault inside the basement of Montreal’s fortress-like Customs House. Max has even picked out a partner for Nick: Jack Teller (Edward Norton, Jr.), a specialist in security systems who only lacks Nick’s years of experience. Nick has to overcome his aversion to working with a partner, while Jack has to swallow his pride and take orders from the more seasoned thief. The Score follows the pair as they walk through all the familiar paces of these flicks: obtaining the building’s plans and security codes, deploying a lot of high-tech hardware, and at the end resolving their differences in a spasm of about-faces. For hanging over their activities is the same question that hangs over all caper movies: Can there ever be honor among thieves?
On the surface De Niro’s Nick is identical to the master thief he played in Michael Mann’s Heat—both burglars even have a professional credo that they’re forced to violate against their better judgment. But De Niro avoids dredging up too many memories by playing Nick as the complete opposite of Heat’s narrowly self-interested Neil McCauley, making him a warm, down-to-earth presence. The idea that such a successful yegg would be so tender and sincere may be absurd, but at least the decision forces De Niro into a freshness he hasn’t had in a long time. Gone are the tics—the forefinger jabbing insistently at tabletops, the lumpish head paralyzed at an off-kilter angle to his body, the Tourette’s-like repetition of some colorless phrase—that have made so many De Niro performances indistinguishable from each other.
The memory of Brando’s past brilliance (especially in the Mount Rushmore of performances he gave us in A Streetcar Named Desire, On the Waterfront, The Godfather, and Last Tango in Paris) combined with his enormous physical size usually makes watching him feel akin to taking in some awesome natural phenomenon—the Grand Canyon, say, or a meteor shower. In more recent years he’s single-handedly made turkeys like A Dry White Season and The Freshman watchable by the sheer dint of his personality and a willingness to kid his own image, but The Score doesn’t give him anything to grab onto. The character of Max is so familiar to us that we can almost recite his lines ahead of Brando, and in the deadness that surrounds him, it’s hard not to notice that Oz’s compositions emphasize the actor’s corpulence. (In one overhead view he looks like he just ate Orson Welles.) Brando gives his lines what twinkle he can, but there’s only so much even he can do.
The Score’s writers include Lem Dobbs (The Limey) and Kario Salem (Don King: Only in America), but you’d never guess from this picture that they were capable of original work. It’s bad enough that The Score has one of those generic action-movie titles and that its characters’ names all feel pulled out of a phone book, but it’s also filled with plot turns so predictable that you not only guess them, you reject them as too obvious, before they ever arrive. It’s clear that Oz loves actors, and as he did in Bowfinger, he gives us plenty of chances just to be with his performers and to listen to the sound of their voices; the pity is that they have nothing to talk about except their musty predicaments. Diane gives Nick the choice of being with her or continuing a life of crime. Nick insists that Jack do things his way, “or I walk”—and then reiterates it two or three times for good measure. And Max finally confides in Nick what apparently is every fence’s secret: he desperately needs the score because he’s in dutch with some gangsters. (“This time I’m really scared,” he confesses, and for once Brando might be thinking of his critics.)
Ironically, The Score’s most fully realized character isn’t even listed in the credits. Jack cases the Customs House by working there under the guise of a retarded janitor named “Brian.” Norton’s physical mimicry of Brian—the slurred speech, and a lurching walk that’s topped off by one hand held aloft in a perpetual hello—is technically amazing, but he fills out the emotions of this living disguise until Brian becomes the one thing in the movie that you actually give a damn about. (It’s impossible to care about that ridiculous scepter.) By the end of the movie, you’ve grown so fond of this gentle, nonexistent character that it’s hard not to laugh at yourself.
Oz may not be an original filmmaker, but at least he isn’t a sadist. He keeps the squabbling between the partners low-key, without ever letting it descend into macho guff or casual cruelty, even at the height of the crisis that arises between them. Oz paints Nick Wells as a civilized man who’s only trying to maintain his champagne-and-caviar lifestyle, and this might be an apt description of Oz himself. He’s almost certainly a wonderful man, if his movies are any guide. He just belongs in a different line of work.
– Tom Block