The Best Offer: Geoffrey Rush in a Fluffy, Arty Mystery

The Best Offer

Runs Fri., Jan. 24–Thurs., Jan. 30 at SIFF Film Center. Rated R. 131 minutes.

There have been better Oscar winners in the foreign-language-film category, but few as beloved as Giuseppe Tornatore’s Cinema Paradiso (1988). In the quarter-century since he made that heartwarmer, Tornatore has followed with a hodgepodge of projects, many of them touched with a sentimental or precious spirit—a middling record, which is why it’s intriguing to see him turn to a genre picture. Yes, The Best Offer is a character study, but it also has a built-in suspense mechanism that leads the writer/director away from his more pretentious tendencies.

Plus, any movie that puts Geoffrey Rush in the central role deserves attention. Rush plays the feared auction-house owner and connoisseur Virgil Oldman, who glides through the high-art universe, gavel in hand. (Where exactly this universe is centered is vague; the setting is an unnamed European city where everybody speaks English as common language.) The epitome of class, he’s actually running a tidy scam in plain sight, collecting expensive paintings by underestimating their true worth and using a plant (Donald Sutherland) as high bidder. Virgil, a lifelong bachelor, is drawn into a mysterious relationship with a wealthy young client (Sylvia Hoeks) who needs to sell the treasures from her rambling mansion. She refuses to let herself be seen, but needs Virgil to appraise her belongings, and they carry on an oddly tender communication from opposite sides of a hidden door. Occasionally he lingers around the place, hidden behind a statue, just to catch a glimpse of her; a lifetime of looking cannot be denied. Meanwhile he surreptitiously gathers odd steampunk gizmos from her basement, and conspires with a local tinkerer (Jim Sturgess, from Across the Universe) to assemble the pieces of what appears to be a pre-20th-century robot.

Tornatore doesn’t exactly have a light touch (in case we might not fully understand Virgil’s aversion to human intimacy, the character always wears gloves), so the average viewer will see big plot developments hatching from very early on. Nevertheless, the movie’s a pleasant enough collision of arty eye-candy (pretty locations, secret rooms lined with painted masterpieces) and trash, all goosed along by a cheeky musical score by octogenarian Ennio Morricone. The storyline hangs on a series of unlikely events, but Tornatore’s sheer commitment to the material (every scene is visibly fussed over) makes even random interiors dense with detail. And Rush, an elegant actor who always seems game to mess himself up, gets to play around in his catlike way. He justifies this overdone but enjoyable exercise in fluff.

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