If director Giuseppe Tornatore has had an up-and-down time of it since his breakthrough, 1988’s almost universally adored, Oscar-winning “Cinema Paradiso,” it has to be said that his most recent film, “The Best Offer,” marks a definite low point, even as one of the downs. But that’s probably what’s going to happen when you take a cast, including Geoffrey Rush, Jim Sturgess and Donald Sutherland, that mostly seems as though they don’t belong on the same planet, let alone in the same film, stick them in a pointlessly convoluted plot that’s ludicrously unbelievable from start to finish, and drench the whole lot in a hysterically screechy score from Ennio Morricone. The resulting film is such a campy mess that for a while it’s possible to see it having some sort of life as a kitsch cultish artifact, like an overplotted TV movie from the ’80s. But then it goes on for an interminable 124 minutes, and even that dubious hold on our interest is lost.
Just get a load of this: Virgil Oldman (Rush) is a wealthy and renowned auctioneer who lives the kind of high-class Euro lifestyle that nobody has ever lived, in a luxuriously appointed suite with an immense wall cabinet solely reserved for gloves, because he has some sort of fastidious aversion to touching people or things. His fastidiousness and snobbery, however, mask a shady venal streak, as Virgil is not above using his immaculate reputation to incorrectly identify a painting as a fake, the better to snap it up at auction via a proxy (Sutherland), and snaffle it away for his personal consumption. Still a virgin, over the years he has amassed a considerable number of valuable portraits, always of women, which now line the walls of a secret room (behind the glove wardrobe) from floor to ceiling. Taking the one phone call per year that he answers himself, Virgil hears from a mysterious young woman who wants him to handle the sale of the contents of her mansion, but will never show herself to him. On his first visit he comes across a gear of some sort which he brings to… local mechanical engineering genius and cheery cheeky chappy Robert (Sturgess), who identifies it as part of an automaton dating back to the 17th century that they both become semi-obsessed with rebuilding. Of course, to get the other parts, Virgil must return to the mansion, where he eventually strikes up a relationship with the mysterious woman, Claire (Sylvia Hoeks). She has been apparently living as a shut-in in a secret room of her own, in just one of the film’s screamingly obvious parallels, and when he finally does see her, it turns out, naturally, that she is fully as beautiful as any one of his hidden paintings.
Fairly soon after the start it becomes clear that the film is not going to be very good, but there is still a somewhat interesting Gothic vibe to the woman-in-the-attic plot, and we were quite into the steampunkiness of the subplot about the automaton, because we’re nerds about that sort of thing. But then the twists start coming, surprising nobody except the characters in the film and occasionally inducing eye-roll strain with their contrivance. Aside from the skeeziness of having to endure Rush’s eventual sex scene with Hoeks, more than 30 years his junior, to add insult to injury, we are asked to believe that a man who is seemingly world-renowned for his canniness in business and refined taste in art is such an utter fool that he still thinks there are princesses locked up in ivory towers. And of course, once they’re unlocked, they all look like Botticelli Venuses and will of course fall into the arms of the first sexegenarian they clap eyes on. It’s a little like being told that, I dunno, Norman Mailer believed in unicorns.
And we can’t at all let the performers off the hook. While Rush seems to have some fun devolving from stiff, pompous, starched snob to sweaty old fool in love, Sturgess is just confoundingly miscast or misdirected into a performance so odd that it actually warps our idea of the film’s location (never very clear anyway)—wait, are we in Italy, as the buildings suggest, or the East End of London? And would a friendly lothario with a genius for mechanics be able to make the kind of wage from a shop in which he appears to mostly mend old typewriters for free (and refuse checks from people) to be able to dine in these improbably fancy restaurants? And as for Donald Sutherland, it appears he has simply forgotten the art of acting while standing up. No really, check it out—sitting, he can deliver the silly dialogue and all-over-the-shop characterization the script demands of him with some conviction, but standing, that ability seems to desert him. Perhaps he’s overcome with embarrassment.
As the film trundled toward its forehead-slappingly risible conclusion and the strings on the soundtrack swelled to an ever more insistent shrillness, we ceased to even be mildly diverted by how over-the-top bad the whole endeavor is. Strangely old-fashioned in its construction and requiring a Golden Gate-level feat of engineering to achieve the suspension of disbelief necessary to unironically enjoy it, the lunatic excesses of “The Best Offer” are best approached with severe caution. [D]
This is an edited reprint of our review from the 2013 Berlin Film Festival.