There's something about a movie scoundrel that demands affection. From George Clooney's witty deceptions in Ocean's 11 to Tatum O'Neal's precocious Paper Moon scams, con artists, like great actors, succeed by pretending to be something they're not.
Two quirky new films add fresh spins to the Scam Cinema genre.
Mr. Nice tells the true story of England's most charming pothead Howard Marks, who went from rags to riches to prison after getting busted for smuggling huge quantities of marijuana.
Raised in a working class Welsh village, Marks made it into Oxford where he promptly fell in with a group of druggies. As played by Rhys Ifan, Marks comes across as a congenial, hash-smoking father of four who befriended IRA terrorists and stole the identity of a man naive enough to share personal information with his "fortune teller" wife (Chloe Sevigny).
But Mr. Nice director Bernard Rose says his anti-hero is more victim than victimizer. This film actually shows how the war on drugs basically morphed into the war on terror without anybody noticing."
The Chameleon describes a darker strain of deceitful behavior. A 25-year old Frenchman impersonates a Louisiana boy who disappeared 16 years earlier. Discovered by police writhing on the streets and claiming traumatic memory loss caused by sexual abuse, the mystery man-child re-unites with his curiously unenthusiastic family.
Based on Christopher D''Antonio's fact-based book Le Cameleon, the movie relies on Canadian actor Marc-André Grondin's mercurial star turn to address a central question: why would somebody go to such fraudulent extremes on behalf of a fake persona?
Mr. Nice and The Chameleon invite sympathy for their lead trickster because their motives are relatively pure. Marks craved excitement. The orphaned Frederic Bourdin yearned to be loved. For a nation beset by high powered con artists driven only by greed -- see Kevin Spacey as corrupt lobbyist Jack Abramoff in Casino Jack -- these films raise the bar, if only by a little, on what we can expect from our most skillful deceivers. Say hello to the con men with soul.