Imperfect Gem

'Flawless' features one of Michael Caine's best performances; sadly, it also features Demi Moore

Director Michael Radford has a pretty decent résumé; he made Il Postino and the 2004 version of The Merchant of Venice. But most impressively, he directed the 1984 version of 1984, which, when you think about it, must have involved a lot of patience and some very precise planning.

His latest, a heist caper about someone who is extremely patient and does a lot of planning, features one of the strongest performances of Michael Caine's career. That's kind of like saying "one of the worst decisions that George Bush ever made," or "the most infectious disease that Madonna has ever transmitted," in that you know you're in extreme territory.

Unfortunately, it also features a mediocre and occasionally limp performance by Demi Moore, and Moore gets a lot more screen time than Caine, which seems unfair, because she's married to Ashton Kutcher, and Michael Caine's real name is Maurice Joseph Micklewhite Jr., so, honestly, who's more deserving: someone who's boffing Ashton Kutcher, or poor Maury Micklewhite?

Anyway, the film begins in the present with scenes of active women doing active things in the modern world of feminist equality. A young reporter, dressed in the height of fashion, sashays into a restaurant where she finds her target: an elderly woman sitting alone. The reporter apologizes for being late, noting that it's hard to have it all when you're only 25. It's nice that she not only enters the scene; she provides narration that sums up in one line her purpose in the story. Instead of a character, she's more of a chapter heading.

It turns out that the elderly woman she's interviewing is Laura Quinn (Moore), the first female manager of the London Diamond Corporation, ca. 1960 or so. We then flash back to the middle of the last century for the story itself.

Ms. Quinn is hoping for a promotion, but she is, again, passed over for a man. And yet, she is harder-working than all the men at LDC: She has given up love and family in the name of career, and furthermore, she seems incapable of moving any muscle on her head. The latter is not announced in expository dialogue, as is the former, but is made apparent by the strange death mask that has replaced Ms. Moore's face.

Unfortunately, the next 45 minutes or so are nothing but stage-setting and backstory-telling as we hear at length about the terrible burden of being Ms. Quinn. Luckily, the magical janitor (Caine) occasionally enters the scene to enliven things.

While at first he seems like a plot contrivance that somehow learned to mop, he slowly becomes a far more interesting character as he hatches a plot to steal a thermos full of diamonds from the company's seemingly impenetrable safe.

He'll need Ms. Quinn's help, he says, though, in fact, there's no real reason why he needs her help. But on some slim pretence, she's stuck into the plot, and her thirst for revenge over her bad treatment at the company's hands provides some motivation.

The far more interesting and complex motivation, though, comes from the janitor, Mr. Hobbs, and here, director Radford has a much better sense of storytelling. Instead of spending an hour establishing grievances as he did with Quinn, he parcels out neat bits of Hobbs' story, and adds unexpected twists to both the heist and Hobbs' relationship to all the other characters.

If it weren't for the pedestrian, labored and painfully obvious story of the middle-age-woman-passed-over-in-the-corporate-world, and Moore's strange substitute for acting (i.e., freezing her face into a Botox-ed mask of gloom), this would be an excellent film. Radford has a great visual sensibility, and the design opulently suggests the excess of early-'60s corporate design.

But Radford is just too slow to get to the point, and while the punch lines hit hard when they come, the setup is so long that they're only partially worthwhile. I'm almost sure there's a way to edit this into a great film, probably with only about 20 minutes of cutting, and maybe digitally blurring out Demi Moore.

Oh, and changing about 80 percent of the music. This may not be entirely Radford's fault, but everything Demi Moore says is punctuated by dark and sweeping tones. I think, though, that since she is incapable of showing emotion, Radford thought it best to supplement her performances with a manipulative score, so that we'd know what she's feeling behind her golem-like face.

So I can't exactly recommend Flawless, which is too bad, because the good parts are really good. But if you're willing to put up with the downside, and just want to see what Michael Caine can do, it might be worth checking out. Just bring a tiny flashlight and a crossword puzzle, and you should make it through the opening third.

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