" If this is the direction the rats are going it’s good enough for me "
— [Irish passenger], Titanic

MRQE Top Critic

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The Burnt Orange Heresy fills the canvas with some interesting ideas, but the picture is muddled by uneven brushstrokes and a discordant color palette.

Paint It, Black

The Usual Suspects
The Usual Suspects

This is the kind of material Anthony Minghella excelled at turning into a rich, multi-layered movie. The late, great director of The Talented Mr. Ripley and Cold Mountain knew how to deconstruct novels, identify the material’s soul and reconstruct it for the big screen. Sometimes those efforts involved considerable retooling of the novel, such as with The English Patient. Regardless, it was always a multi-faceted effort. The film’s cast, score, cinematography and narrative were all foundational components in Minghella’s work, which also stepped outside itself to weave in complex themes and cultural influences, including music and other art forms.

Here, the source is Charles Willeford’s 1971 novel. It has a sensibility that reflects the time of its writing, at least until a rather jarring final moment of altruistic honesty. If a movie version had been released back in the ’70s, it would’ve fit in comfortably with the moody, slow-boil stories of the era. That’s when Hitchcock, Altman, Pakula and Bogdanovich, among others, were in full stride as filmmakers.

Minghella would’ve had a field day modernizing material this rich in possibilities. Alas, as it stands, this adaptation is good, but it’s not the masterpiece it could’ve been. The movie adds clarity where none is needed, while obscuring other elements that were originally clear. While still featuring a forged painting and a murder, the movie takes several dramatic departures from the book. Most notably, the lead character in the book is an earnest art critic, while the movie version is a total con artist through and through.

Director Giuseppe Capotondi (The Double Hour) works with a screenplay by Scott B. Smith, who’s no stranger to this turf. Smith wrote the novel A Simple Plan and its screenplay, which became a pretty good film directed by Sam Raimi. The trouble is, rather than pulling viewers into the illusions of the art world and all its colorful (and, perhaps, deceptive) players, Capotondi and Smith keep them at a distance that hampers the impact of the lead character’s meltdown.

That character is James Figueras (Claes Bang, The Last Vermeer). Based in Milan, he teaches ignorant American tourists in the ways of art criticism and how the power of the critic can shape perceptions. Sometimes that critic might even resort to complete fabrications in order to sway an audience and create an air of mystique around a work of art. There’s a whole lot of potential in that notion alone, particularly in this day and age of fake news and rampant misinformation spread through social media and other platforms.

Furthering James’ penchant for deception, he’s lured into the web of Joseph Cassidy (Mick Jagger, yes, that’s the Mick Jagger). Joseph’s a rich man with an interest in art and, in particular, the work of Jerome Debney (Donald Sutherland, The Italian Job). Jerome’s had an unfortunate run of accidental fires that have destroyed his artistic legacy.

As these three characters do their dance, the plot thickens to a density greater than the paint on Van Gogh’s canvas.

Mixed Emotions

Casting Mick Jagger, the legendary Rolling Stones front man, at first sounds like nothing more than stunt casting, something to draw interest to a movie flying dangerously low under the radar. There’s two parts to that. First, if interest alone was the goal, mission: accomplished. But, second — and much more important — Jagger’s good. He’s really good. Jagger’s actually the best part of this endeavor and his character has a little zing to him; he used to stammer until he was instructed to sing through words. But, more insightfully, he claims he doesn’t let a thing’s worth obscure its value.

Jagger manages to be both cordial and somehow menacing at the same time, regardless of his stature. Even at a height of around 5’10”, he’s still dwarfed by his 6-foot-plus co-stars.

Convoluting the storyline is a poorly handled relationship between James (6’5”) and Berenice Hollis (6’3” Elizabeth Debicki, Gatsby). It’s never clear why Berenice, a small-town girl from Minnesota, thinks James is worth her time. Then again, even Berenice admits to visiting Italy with the intent of being nothing more than a whore. So. Well. There’s that. Dream big, babe. But that would also call into question her value to James as any sort of trusted colleague in a line of work so rife with fraud and duplicity.

James proves time and again — early and often — he’s not to be trusted. He has, for all intents and purposes, an allergic need to avoid the truth. It’s something Joseph calls him out on and uses as leverage to get his way.

Both James and Berenice have shady pasts and incidents of indiscretions; neither is particularly likable. That’s not to diss Bang or Debicki; they’re good performers, it’s the characters that are unlikable and their onscreen relationship that’s doubtful.

Given those challenges, it takes time to adjust to the movie’s rhythms, but once this adaptation’s modus operandi reveals itself, the dialogue and interactions become a fun game of open lies and veiled truths. The end game is to expose James as the opposite of who he appears to be; he’s not so smart and not the least bit insightful. While he’s able to sway people with his storytelling and charms, he ultimately has absolutely no capacity to read real people accurately. It becomes darkly humorous to realize James is so blinded by his own web of lies, he assumes everybody is lying or covering up shady secrets of their own.

Under My Thumb

Ultimately, this cat-and-mouse type of dance brings James and Jerome (6’4”) together for an interview, a rarity from the reclusive artist and an opportunity to burnish James’ stature in the art world. But greed and murder lead to a twist that causes James to go paranoid.

Willeford’s book skewers the manufactured and carefully choreographed elements of the elite art world; it gives new meaning to the term “curated.” To the extent the art world was perceived to be pretentious back in the early ‘70s, it’s only escalated rapidly from there. That’s one element this adaptation runs with and takes in an interesting direction. To wit, following one fiery mishap, Jerome made a bold return to the art world with a piece called “The Empty Frame.” The work was just that. Jerome did it as a joke; it’s the art world and media that took it seriously and read far too much into it. Similarly, his painting entitled “Burnt Orange Heresy” is another joke; the obscure title merely a bone thrown at the dogs of the art world for them to chew on and — once again — “find meaning in the meaningless.”

While Sutherland’s dialogue is overly flowery and literate to the point he sounds like he’s a misplaced character from a lost Shakespeare play, Jerome is a feisty elder statesman of the art world calling out the misplaced interests of the craft he loves.

Willeford’s work — written in the first person — has moments of devilish playfulness; he opens the book with a dedication to the fictional artist Jacques Debierue’s memory (1886-1970). In the movie (in which Jerome Debney takes the place of Jacques Debierue), the devishness is placed elsewhere and the two — the book and the movie — become companion pieces. They’re two fairly different interpretations of the same basic concept.

The movie’s bite comes late in the game, but, even though it’s a slow burn to get there, the final 10 minutes get to the dizzy heights of manipulation and counter-manipulation that suggests there is still at least a small shred of honesty left in the world.