Part of John C. Reilly’s charm is his anti-charm — the way the invaluable character actor never allows the men he plays to panhandle for sympathy. Sometimes they’re soft and ill-treated, as in ”Chicago”; sometimes they’re hard and corrupt, as in ”Gangs of New York.” Always, they take their lumps. And in Criminal, Reilly gives lumps, using his meaty Everyman opacity to play Richard Gaddis, a well-worn con artist in Los Angeles who finagles opportunities to take the money and run. When he spots Rodrigo (”Y Tu Mamá También”’s angel-faced Diego Luna), a young Mexican scammer whose gentle manners are his best assets, Richard takes the junior grifter on as a partner. Pretty soon the two are collaborating on something big: the sale of rare (counterfeit) antique currency to a rich collector (Peter Mullan), with grudging help from Richard’s sister (Maggie Gyllenhaal), who has been burned by her brother in the past.
The swindles and counter-swindles mount up, of course, and the number of players multiplies: We’re in David Mamet country, just across the sea from Fabián Bielinsky’s cool 2002 Argentinean caper ”Nine Queens,” of which this imitation trifle by Gregory Jacobs is a remake. They just don’t mount up to anything — diminishing returns, I think, from the depleted soil of clever, vacant, game-playing capers populated by clever, vacant, game-playing guys (and the actors who covet the wardrobes). The performances are winning — Gyllenhaal is particularly sharp as an aggrieved sibling, and there’s mutual zing in her scenes with Reilly. The veteran British cinematographer Chris Menges (”The Killing Fields”) delivers the look of a back-alley Los Angeles as potent, in its way, as the star billing L.A. was given in ”Collateral.”
But although Richard and Rodrigo are playing for a big score, ”Criminal” plays it easy, too easy, like the cool cats in Steven Soderbergh’s ”Ocean’s Eleven.” (Jacobs, making his feature directorial debut, is a longtime production associate of Soderbergh’s.) The con is, if everything’s a game, then our emotional investment is funny money.