If you're enthralled by watching acclaimed actors meandering purposelessly around Montreal, this may be the summer sensation you've been hankering for. Heck, the good folks at Paramount obviously believe in this one (enough to have kept it safe from our clutches until too late for timely publication), and the requisite gushes from tired old critics already adorn the ads. But here's a Frank Oz fan with great affection for French Canadians who's obliged to tell you that this thing is hardly worth the bother. Really.
Although it means well and struggles toward gritty glory, The Score is less a movie than a tentative stab at wiseguy chic, with a tidy scar where its scrotum ought to be. Ordinarily, this gentle approach would be okay -- as we've noted from his hilarious turns in The King of Comedy and Meet the Parents, it's not always necessary for Robert De Niro to bust heads in order to come up aces. But here, as a mobster turned club owner ingeniously named Nick, he's given nothing to do but connect the dots of the amazingly trite screenplay by Kario Salem, Lem Dobbs and Scott Marshall Smith. (There are credits listed for the "story" as well, possibly as some sort of joke.)
After a protracted opening title sequence designed to inform us that Nick is a person who lives in a house, works in a club and sometimes rides on boats with stolen goods, we the audience sense a tiny prickle around our shins. There's no need to be alarmed, as this is only director Frank Oz hitting us with the full extent of the project's narrative thrust. See, Nick wants out of the business, to go straight, to fuck his girlfriend Diane (Angela Bassett) and to lounge around in his club listening to mellow jazz as if he's stuck forever in an outtake from a Dirty Harry movie. Blocking his way, however, is one very big hurdle in the form of Max (Marlon Brando), a kingpin with one last heist waiting in the wings.
Basically, what plays out is the tale of three men and a large, golden, jewel-encrusted dong. Edward Norton is the third man (hey, now, there's a remake), punching the clock as Jack, a savvy and streetwise punk who specializes in regaling Max with talk of treasure while irritating Nick with his meddlesome techniques. By pretending he's a retarded lad named Brian, Jack has landed a custodial job in an antiques warehouse where a film crew can easily shoot a dull heist movie without much crowd interference or street noise. This location also happens to contain a priceless 16th-century scepter (the aforementioned phallic symbol), which Max wants Nick and Jack to steal, to afford them all a virility boost or God knows what.
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Which is pretty much it for plot, unfortunately. As he has demonstrated in his sharp comedies with Steve Martin and his countless Muppet outings, the director born Richard Frank Oznowicz is one hell of a showman, but this attempt to depict the manly ways of manly men merely slinks off into the corner and falls asleep. Much like actresses who pass their prime and then suddenly decide that we're desperate to see them nude, Oz seems determined to show us his tough-guy chops, but this simply isn't his bag, and it shows.
As for the shocking twist employed -- in the wake of M. Night Shyamalan -- to help sell the movie, let's just say one only need read the poster's tag line: "There are no partners in crime." Expect no surprises here, nor any suspense (The Great Muppet Caper is more likely to turn your veins to ice), and the mechanics of the burglary do little more than suggest what it might look like if De Niro expressed a fetish for S&M and harnesses. The greatest technical marvel on display is Norton's ability to pretend that he's retarded, afflicted with dual personalities, and named Jack -- factors we already knew from Fight Club.
The rest of the cast gets a better deal, being allowed to breeze through, collect their checks and slip out. Bassett makes the most of her brief screen time, providing a plausible center of gravity for De Niro's character. Ultimately, the only good reason to see the film at all is to check in on a living legend. Brando wanders through the movie as if he's tolerating an annoying guest, sweetly charming one minute, detached and obnoxious the next.
He also claims all of the movie's paltry stash of good lines ("You know, you look like shit; what's your secret?"), but his mirth is so incongruous with the rest of the film's leaden delivery that one must assume he's just ad-libbing, with one eye on the door.