The Thomas Crown Affair

He’s got more money than he knows what to do with and he regularly seems to end up on the top of big business dealings, outsmarting the other side, even as they think they’ve accomplished the coup. Smart, rich, good-looking, and — uncommitted. So Thomas Crown (Pierce Brosnan) plans art thefts to obtain the otherwise unobtainable: the Metropolitan Museum of Art does not often de-accession its Monets. Crown loves the art, but he loves the challenge of the caper more.

Enter the beautiful, sexy, and equally intelligent insurance investigator, Catherine Banning (Rene Russo), who almost instantly makes the NYPD look like chopped liver. She quickly zeroes in on Crown as the perpetrator, and in the utterly civilized manner of a long line of romance/caper movies, she investigates, woos, and falls in love, all at the same time.

There are no real surprises here, nothing new, nothing that hasn’t been done before. There are no obvious special effects and there is no gutter humor. The Thomas Crown Affair is a refreshingly straightforward entertainment film, made with great style, playing to the same yearnings for adventure and romance that have brought audiences faithfully back to this genre generation after generation. What makes the film work is smart writing, good chemistry between the leads, topnotch production values, and a complete lack of pretension. There is not one moment in The Thomas Crown Affair in which the film puts on airs or asks to be considered any more than slick, fluffy, summer fare. That’s what it is and that’s what it delivers.

John McTiernan’s direction keeps things unusually and welcomely understated. Brosnan’s poker face makes him seem dispassionate and ultra-cool until Russo sweeps him off his well-shod feet; then, a few strategically offered deep looks and an occasional twitch of the eye or cheek or jaw reveal that the cool guy actually has feelings. Russo has a smile that seems to start in her brain – she radiates intelligence and wit, so when the smile emerges it plays convincingly, and when it erupts into her wonderfully uninhibited laugh, you share her joyfulness.

When the two of them first connect, once again McTiernan doesn’t rush or overplay it. It is later, on the dance floor in a hot Latin number, that the real combustion starts. It continues back at Crown’s townhouse where the passion plays out on the stairs, step-by-step up to the bedroom – high energy sex that both partners enjoy with equal fervor and a sense of humor, filmed both honestly and tastefully. It can be done.

Faye Dunaway, who starred with Steve McQueen in the original 1968 version, plays Crown’s shrink this time around. She looks great and she, too, has been well directed. Instead of the sort of over-the-top histrionics one might have expected, she comes up with a nicely modulated performance. Her importance to the scenario is in establishing Crown’s motivation. What he and Banning have in common – and at the core of the film’s energy – is an inability to trust and commit which has to be overcome if love is to soar. The caper becomes an amusing background to the love story.

Ben Gazzara is given major billing here, as is Fritz Weaver. Neither of them are given anything to do; their roles are barely cameos. Denis Leary as the police lieutenant delivers a down-to-earth New York cop. The character provides contrast to the high flying hero and heroine in their lives of moneyed ease and pleasures. His presence reminds the viewer of the reality and the values of more ordinary folks. He’s given a bit of dialogue toward the end, letting Russo understand that squiggles of paint on canvas can never be as important as human lives. But, once again, this nicely balancing scene isn’t preachy or overweighted.

Kudos to the writer and director for the consistent restraint that makes The Thomas Crown Affair an unguilty pleasure.

Arthur Lazere

San Francisco, CA
Mr. Lazere founded culturevulture.net in 1998 and worked tirelessly to promote its potential as a means for communicating a distinctly personal yet wide-ranging selection of arts reviews. Under his leadership, the site grew in esteem as well as in “circulation", and is well-regarded nationally and internationally as a source for up-to-date, well-written criticism. Arthur passed away on September 30, 2006.