The Con is On (2018, Lionsgate)
Review by Bob Freville
The term “vanity project” gets thrown around a lot, but it’s something that is normally applied to an art form attempted by a novice who is foreign to the field in question. When you hear that a sitcom actor like Charlie Sheen has put out a poetry collection or that a former child star like Corey Feldman is releasing a new album, these exercises loan themselves to the term.
What one doesn’t expect is to encounter a vanity project that exists within the sphere of that person’s area of expertise. And, yet, here I find myself gearing up to tell you all about a film populated by experienced actors and directed by a filmmaker with at least one previous feature under his belt.
I’m talkin’ The Con is On, formerly titled The Brits Are Coming, a 2018 heist movie that finds international talent of the highest caliber (Tim Roth, Uma Thurman, Stephen Fry, Parker Posey, Crispin Glover, Alice Eve, and so forth) having a blast with some of the most giddily absurd characters to ever sully the screen.
The plot is hopelessly convoluted, the pace is obstinately sluggish, and the characters’ motivations and morals are all but completely undeveloped. From a storytelling or film-making standpoint, The Con is On is a near-complete failure…unless you consider the very real possibility that the whole thing was a joke from the start.
When I think of the vanity project, my mind usually goes to the examples that James Franco has given us, diverse hit-or-miss entries into a determinedly varied canon of work. Franco is, without question, the best paradigm of the vanity artist as his works occur across a multitude of disciplines (paintings, poetry, films, novels, installations, music, et al.). Some of them are good, some of them are bad, but each is alive with their creator’s very obvious passion.
In other words, these are sincere attempts at an outpouring of creativity. They come from an impulse of the imagination, for good or ill. By contrast, The Con is On feels like it was engineered to be a vehicle for a group of actors tired of taking themselves seriously. It serves as little more than an excuse for them to shack up at the Chateau Marmont and have an extended on-screen (and off-screen?) bacchanalia.
Ostensibly James Oakley’s film is a heist comedy about two alcoholic crooks who flee to LA from their native England to avoid paying a debt they owe to a ruthless mobster. Once they’ve landed in sunny California, they hatch a plan to steal a ring worth several million dollars from the male crook (Tim Roth)’s ex-wife, a vapid and sex-starved Hollywood actress (Alice Eve) who’s fed up with her lecherous fiance (Crispin Glover).
That’s where the plot and the character development stop making sense…if they ever made any sense at all. All of the roles are hilariously miscast, but somehow they work perfectly when one accepts that this is not a heist movie so much as it is some drugged out foreigner’s idea of what a modern screwball comedy would look like through the hazy lens of a vacuous Hollywood celebrity lifestyle.
Roth is in top form as the drunken male crook who drinks an impossible amount of hard liquor in damn near every scene. Slumping, lurching and slurring his lines around every corner, often while screwing his face up into hideous and inexplicable expressions, Roth serves as the audience member’s on-screen surrogate. He seems as perplexed as we are that this entire affair is actually allowed to play out.
Parker Posey plays an unhinged personal assistant to Crispin Glover’s greasy auteur filmmaker, often hurling herself face first onto the massive staircase of the Hollywood couple’s mansion or stuffing her face in frosted cake. It is clear that she’s having a lot of fun playing crazy, but the reasons for this hysteria and her improbable pseudo-seduction of Roth’s character are never properly revealed.
Why she would malinger and obsess over a self-possessed adulterer who is already banging the equally unhinged Sofia Vergara is opaque at best and stupid at worst. This is just one of the script’s many handicaps.
As a work of cinematic art, The Con is On is terrible, but as an example of the anarchic spirit of so-called independent film it is a true paragon. Few films so openly relish the opportunity to waste other people’s money on a frivolous exercise in orgiastic scenery chewing.
Perhaps this film has the power to obliterate the term vanity project since vanity implies a certain sense of conceitedness on the artist’s part; it would take a generous amount of delusion to think that this film makes them look good. That, I think, may be the point they were after with this entire endeavor—to thumb their noses at the idea of Hollywood celebrities having to be pretty. Surely, their manic physicality and facial contortions are anything but.
To be sure, The Con is On is not a good movie…unless you get a kick out of the idea of Sofia Vergara begging the gargoyle-ish Glover to fuck her in the hyena-like voice that made her a Modern Family mainstay. It’s a picture by and for industry insiders who understand the imbecilic nature of the rather incestuous film world and its major players.
It’s also a film for the kind of freaks who can get a fine chuckle out of Ionesco-worthy lines like, “Anyone who thinks a non-military grade rappeling cable can support the weight of two grown men and a miniature donkey deserves to fall off a cliff.”
What this vanity pic proves is that it is still possible for actors to play in the ball pit while flipping their agents the bird. After all, they’ve earned it by embarrassing themselves in enough equally egregious mainstream blockbusters. They should at least be able to embarrass themselves on their own terms. It’s high time they get to enjoy some cocktails and have some real fun.