MRR Review: "The Best Offer"

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A story centered on an eccentric art auctioneer and his obsession with an heiress/collector.
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MRR Review: "The Best Offer"

Rating: R (some sexuality and graphic nudity)
Length: 131 minutes
Release Date: January 1, 2014
Directed by: Giuseppe Tornatore
Genre: Crime/Drama/Romance

The Australian actor Geoffrey Rush is an international treasure. Whether he is playing the Elizabethan theater impresario Philip Henslowe in "Shakespeare in Love," the mad Marquis de Sade in "Quills," the undaunted speech therapist Lionel Logue in "The King's Speech," or the grandiose and bombastic Captain Hector Barbossa in the "Pirates of the Caribbean" series, Rush is one of those rare actors who rarely, if ever, takes a false step. What you might call an actor's actor, Rush was trained in the classical theatre, which certainly explains his tremendous versatility and presence. If he can be compared to any contemporary, it is the legendary Peter Sellers, whom Rush played impressively in the television film "The Life and Death of Peter Sellers," for which he won an Emmy to add to his long list of distinctions, including a Tony Award and an Academy Award. This "Triple Crown of Acting" distinction puts him in the select company of such legends as Jason Robards, Vanessa Redgrave, Anne Bancroft, and Al Pacino.

It's a good thing for director Guiseppe Tornatore the actor is so talented; in "The Best Offer," Rush is asked to carry a film with a thin plot, gorgeous cinematography, and not much else. The amazing thing is how well Rush succeeds at a task that would have quickly foiled most of his contemporaries. In the Italian-produced film, originally titled "La miggliore offerta," Rush plays Virgil Oldman, the jaded but respected director of an auction house who becomes increasingly obsessed with one of his clients, a beautiful and reclusive heiress named Claire who wants to auction off a treasure trove of valuables inherited from her parents. Played by the stunning, Dutch model-turned-actress Sylvia Hoeks, the heiress suffers from such a severe case of agoraphobia she must communicate with Oldman, who is cataloguing her collection at her villa, through a closed door.

"The Best Offer" is in some ways reminiscent of Spike Jonze's recently released "Her." Like the protagonist in Jonze's film, Oldman falls in love with what is mostly a voice without a body. However, "The Best Offer" lacks the playfulness and comedic inventiveness of "Her," so the script Rush must work with is more traditional and uneventful, and the dramatic choreography borrows heavily from other scripts. Among the heiress's treasures, Oldman finds what may be the pieces of a priceless automaton. He hires a specialist named Robert, played by Jim Sturgess, to help him put it together. Robert's role in the film, however, is to play Oldman's Cyrano, counseling the aged virgin on how to woo the young beauty. The automaton bit is lifted almost entirely from Martin Scorcese's "Hugo," although the thing seems to be of little consequence in this narrative.

Eventually, Oldman is able to see Claire as she inspects his cataloguing while thinking he is away, and although she is startled to see him at first, their love affair begins physically after this. From here on, two of the films competing thematic forces are set somewhat ponderously against each other as the narrative works toward a twist at the end that is supposed to signal the clash of these forces.

Before he is hired by Claire, Oldman had long been running a scam with a failed-artist friend named Billy Whistler, a terrific white-bearded Donald Sutherland, to cheat his own auction house out of its most prized offerings, undervaluing these works so Whistler can purchase them and they can share the loot. "Anything can be faked," Whistler proclaims at one point. And this is the skepticism with which Oldman approaches Claire, even as he hopelessly falls for her. Claire, on the other hand, tells Oldman that "there is always something authentic in every portrait." The audience, of course, is supposed to take this to mean that there is hope, even for someone as jaded as Oldman.

Such heavy handedness is a far cry from the subtle magical touch director Tornatore displayed in his masterpiece "Cinema Paradiso," but rather than suffocate in the melodrama as may have happened to any other talented actor, Rush plays directly into it, never looking back. He has done this before—he pulled out a majestic performance from the somewhat convoluted script of "Quills"— and he does it again here. His obsession with Claire becomes something demonic, and as the crisis rises to operatic heights, a situation in which the audience may have once felt dread for the old, inexperienced virgin in the hands of a femme fatale is turned on its head. It is Claire for whom the audience may begin to feel dread as she is pursued by the mad curator, making her every phobia a reality. That he can cull such drama from such a common script is credit to Rush's amazing talent.

Rating: 4 out 5