The Score

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A movie starring Marlon Brando, Robert DeNiro and Edward Norton should be, mathematically speaking, just about the best-acted movie ever made. “The Score” comes nowhere near meeting those impossible expectations, but it is successful at being a compelling caper film about jewel thieves doing what they do best.

Methodically (at times too slowly) directed by Frank Oz, “The Score” focuses on Nick Wells (DeNiro), an aging criminal eager to settle down with his tacked-on subplot of a girlfriend (Angela Bassett) and run his jazz club in Montreal.

As is often the case in these matters, he’s roped into one more heist by his associate Max (Brando), who’s even older and fatter (and weirder — he dresses like Truman Capote and hangs out by an unfilled indoor swimming pool). Max knows a young kid, Jack (Norton), eager to jump into the world of crime, and he’s been setting up a major job: stealing a priceless French scepter from the Montreal Customs House.

Jack does his homework. Several weeks earlier, he got a job as a graveyard-shift janitor in the building so he could scope it out. His cover is that he acts retarded, thus throwing off any possible suspicion and buying him easy access to any part of the building.

Naturally, at least one person involved is not telling the others the truth. The film’s dedication to intelligence and sophistication prevents it from cheaply pulling any major rugs out from under us, but there are some pleasing twists and reversals.

DeNiro and Norton are characteristically great. Neither performance will earn an Oscar, but don’t let the fact that they make it look easy cause you to forget how masterful these actors are.

And Brando, bloated self-parody that he is these days, proves he’s still got it. He’s not given enough screen time to fully develop his character, but when he’s there, he’s right on the money. Max is a real person, and Brando lives in him. (Max is a real big person, apparently.)

One of the film’s most laudable qualities is that it refuses to spell everything out for us, yet still makes things clear. When Jack tells us, in voice-over, that he’s found a way to sneak things past the metal detector at the Customs House, we see him passing his lunch through to a guard. A lesser movie would have had Jack then say, “I’ll hide them in my lunch, since the guards never check that,” or maybe give us a tight close-up of the lunch to make sure we see what he’s getting at. But not here. He says he can sneak things in, and the movie assumes we’re smart enough to figure out how he’ll do it.

Where the movie is not as nimble is in the pacing. Being unhurried is one thing; being too slow is another. That accounts for only a few sections, though, and once the heist swings into action, every moment is enthralling.

B (; R, frequent harsh profanity.)

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