In “Best Offer,” the subtlety free and borderline camp new mystery film by Italian director Giuseppe Tornatore, the protagonist’s name is Virgil Oldman. He is, as astute readers may have already guessed, an old man possessed of refined tastes and one acute tragic flaw.
That this clunky metaphor is played by Geoffrey Rush, who is incapable of painting a character in fewer than three dimensions, is one of two saving graces in a film that otherwise contains all the sophisticated mystery and allure of a Hardy Boys novel. The other is its sumptuous visual and aural atmosphere, created by the supremely gifted production designer Maurizio Sabatini (“Life is Beautiful”), master composer Ennio Morricone and cinematographer Fabio Zamarion.
Oldman is the tragic hero of the story. He is an aging auctioneer who has spent his life amassing a collection of priceless portraits for his own personal edification and selling off masterful forgeries to unsuspecting buyers. He receives a phone call one day from a panicked woman (Sylvia Hoakes) who implores him in a suspiciously raspy voice to appraise her family’s collection of antiques and artworks.
He reluctantly assents, setting the creaky plot in motion. The woman refuses to reveal herself in person, tempting and tantalizing him with tidbits of information about herself that are obviously calculated to arouse his interest. Soon enough, with the sage advice of his young friend (Jim Sturgess), he coaxes her out into the open and commences a relationship with her that will ultimately spell his downfall.
It could be that Tornatore, who directed the Oscar-winning “Cinema Paradiso,” is merely uncomfortable working in English and therefore could not personally gauge how offputting some of the less elegant sections of the script can be.
Like “Cinema Paradiso,” the film is a kind of love letter to moviemaking, and perhaps to Alfred Hitchcock especially, that lacks the narrative sophistication and momentum of its forebears in Italian and American cinema.
It also is remarkably similar in tone and visual content to Martin Scorcese’s far more alluring “Hugo.” It includes the same motif of marching time, of mechanical gears, even the use of an automaton as a kind of metaphor for mystery.
But while all the visual elements are there, and alluring as such, it’s the simplistic narrative and the writing that gets in the way.
In a conversation typical of the film’s heavy-handed writing, Oldman asks for advice from his longtime friend and master forger, played with aplomb by Donald Sutherland, who seems to be wondering whether his dialogue is for real even while he is speaking it.
“Human emotions are like works of art,” Sutherland’s character says to Oldman. “They can be forged.”
Despite its visual charms, it will be difficult for seasoned moviegoers to forge any emotion for this film other than ambivalence.
Starring: Geoffrey Rush, Donald Sutherland, Sylvia Hoeks, Jim Sturgess
Director: Giuseppe Tornatore
Running time: 131 minutes
Rating: R for some sexuality
The Lowdown: A lonely and aging auctioneer stumbles into a new trove of treasures and a dangerous love affair.