‘The Best Offer’ **
It would be easy to mistake the era depicted in “The Best Offer” as some quaint, long-ago time when men wore suspenders, posh restaurants had good acoustics and selfies were painted in exquisite detail. But the film, by “Cinema Paradiso” auteur Giuseppe Tornatore, takes place in the present day, albeit among an upper echelon of wealthy and refined individuals.
The whiff of musty air works for the film, which has a Hitchcockian quality and music by the brilliant Ennio Morricone, Sergio Leone’s go-to composer. This is a movie about antiques, and that includes the main character, the perfectly-named Virgil Oldman, played by Geoffrey Rush.
Virgil is a renowned auctioneer and appraiser with a passion for paintings. He’s a serious man with a fear of women (at least real ones; he has a massive collection of female portraits) and an off-putting habit of wearing gloves at all times.
He has at least one skeleton in his closet: He sometimes passes off authentic masterworks as forgeries, then auctions them at a discount so he can add them to his secret collection. Virgil’s accomplice and purchaser in this scheme is Billy, played by Donald Sutherland, whose scarves and flowing locks call to mind a creepy professor.
Virgil, while lonely, seems to be on top of his professional game. But then he gets a call from a reclusive heiress, who hasn’t left her house in more than a decade and wants to offload the valuable belongings of her late parents. Virgil agrees to work with Claire (Sylvia Hoeks), who speaks to him through a door, and before you know it, he’s falling in love. Never mind that he’s never seen her – or that she’s 27.
In the process of sifting through Claire’s belongings, Virgil keeps stumbling upon rusty gears, scattered around the house like Easter eggs, and he enlists young Robert (Jim Sturgess) to help him reassemble the pieces into a spectacularly strange contraption.
At its best, the movie, like the slowly materializing gizmo, builds on itself while retaining an aura of mystery. Morricone’s unnerving music almost single-handedly creates the suspense. While movie scores often call attention to themselves, Morricone’s is ever-present and evocative but also unobtrusive.
The beginning of the movie is cryptic and entertaining, and Tornatore cooks up an equally inspired – if overwrought – ending, but the filmmaker doesn’t appear to have any idea of how to link the two. It wouldn’t be right to give too much away, but suffice it to say, during the middle of the movie characters begin behaving in increasingly strange and unbelievable ways and there are unexplained leaps in time that prove confusing (and not in a delightfully enigmatic way).
“The Best Offer” turns out to be a beautiful shell. It looks good and sounds better, but for all its intricacies, it doesn’t add up to much.