Screen gems...with M.V. Moorhead

In the unlikely event that Hollywood ever makes a movie in which I figure as a character, I really hope I’m not played by John C. Reilly.

Don’t misunderstand—one couldn’t hope to be played by a finer, more  skillful, more soulful actor.

A familiar face for a decade and a half, Reilly has gradually become one of the more respected character players in American movies.

The Chicago theater vet, with his broad face, thinning curly hair, and high, wheedling voice, made an impression in his earliest appearances—as the touchingly starstruck young monk in the underrated We’re No Angels, for instance—and eventually scored an Oscar nomination for his first-rate performance in Chicago two years ago.

But that role—the gullible nonentity Amos “Mr. Cellophane” Hart—is symptomatic of why I wouldn’t want his name to spring to the mind of a producer looking for the perfect guy to play me. This command-ing young actor has largely specialized in playing wimps, cuckolds, bumblers, sweet-natured thickheads and hapless victims.

He may be about to change pigeon holes, however. Reilly’s role in Criminal, a slick American knock-off of the Argentine film Nine Queens, must have been a deeply refreshing experience for him.

For one thing, he’s the leading man  for a change, and he carries the film with the bearing and confidence of a star. Better still, there’s none of the poor, innocent, nice-guy bit this time—his con man Richard Gaddis is a fierce, forceful, bitterly funny, amoral S.O.B.

Gaddis is a small-potatoes grifter who cruises around L.A. boldly “short-conning” scraps of money from the likes of waiters and little old ladies, when he’s not feuding with his hotel-concierge sister Valerie (the impressive Maggie Gyllenhaal).

Unlike most protagonist thieves in movies, his scroungy crimes aren’t ethically mitigated for us, nor does he offer the slightest justification for them, other than contemptuously noting that many of his victims are “dumb as pets.”

When his new young apprentice Rodrigo (the pleasant Diego Luna of Y Tu Mama Tambien) expresses distaste for Richard’s selection of victims, Richard sneers at him disbelievingly, as if the idea that anyone might have moral reservations about taking advantage of people is the surest sign that they’re a sucker.

When he spews baffled amusement at the idea that anyone would attach any value to family, or to employment, or even to personal loyalty, it’s clear that he isn’t posing—his perplexity at people’s willingness to observe societal conventions is genuine.

Richard and Rodrigo get caught up in scheme to sell a hot-shot Scottish businessman (the convincingly odious Peter Mullan) a forged piece of collectable currency.

Complication after complication and mishap after mishap is piled on, with more and more shady types demanding a cut of the take in return for their help, and Richard bleating indignation all the way.

After a while you’ll probably figure out the big twist toward which all this is headed, but director Gregory Jacobs, working from a script he wrote with “Sam Lowry”—reportedly a pseudonym for Steven Soderbergh—gets us there briskly and with a crafty, acid sense of humor.

Even if you guess Criminal’s payoff, you’ll likely find it satisfying.