Michael Vaughn is a professional psychic. He is also a conman—obviously. The one clearly implies the other. He has been scuffling through crummy commuter hotel gigs. However, he will try to convert a crisis into a blockbuster career break in Trevor White’s A Crooked Somebody (trailer here), which opens this Friday in New York.
Vaughn is tired of life on the road with Chelsea, his business partner and shill-of-last-resort. Nevertheless, his act is still good enough to impress Nathan, a violent drifter who still carries the remorse of a decades-old murder. Convinced Vaughn made a connection with his victim, Nathan kidnaps the phony medium with the intent to kill. Instead, Vaughn exploits his guilt, promising he can help bring comfort to his victim’s restless spirit and his now grown daughter, Stacey (who was a major sob-story, back in the day).
Shrewdly, he convinces Nathan to lead him to where the body is buried, so he could “discover” it as part of a media event. He does indeed become a trending topic, but he also attracts the suspicious attention of the local cops. Nathan also starts to doubt his sincerity, while Stacey refuses to participate in the media circus.
Crooked Somebody shares a kinship with Irvin Kershner’s The Flim-Flam Man, because both films explore the ways in which bunco artists often get help from their pigeons to con themselves. They also share small-town-off-the-interstate settings, which are convenient if you might have to leave town in a hurry.
As Vaughn, Rich Sommer is impressively committed, portraying him in just about every way a man can be unpalatable, from smug smarminess to whiny desperation. He certainly makes him quite a piece of work. Joanne Froggatt’s Chelsea is subtly reminiscent of Lizabeth Scott in her hardened noir prime, but without any hanky-panky going on. Yet, the best work comes from Ed Harris and Amy Madigan as Vaughn’s devout parents. Thanks to them and screenwriter Andrew Zilch, the Vaughns are not moralizing caricatures. In fact, their faith and earnestness are ultimately quite beautiful and touching.
Frankly, Crooked Somebody works better as a grifter character study than a caper-con. Zilch’s narrative has a few reversals and betrayals, but it would need more to hang with the Ocean franchise and Mamet’s big con films. However, the characters are consistently intriguing and increasingly compelling as the stakes rise. Mercifully, it also avoids the “hey, maybe he’s suddenly psychic, after all” subplot, like it is the doomsday plague. Recommended as a modern, media-savvy Flim-Flam descendant, A Crooked Somebody opens this Friday (10/5) in New York, at the Cinema Village.