ARTS

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May 23, 2005

You mean there's a plot, too? Visuals are only the icing on this Layer Cake

The weekend belongs to the Sith. There's no question about that. Darth Vader is not only on 9,400 theater screens in the U.S. and Canada, but also on millions of televisions hawking for Burger King and M&Ms. For Star Wars fans, this marks the return of George Lucas to some reasonable fraction of his original prowess. To everyone else, I imagine, little could be more annoying.

The real tragedy, though, is not that Yoda has sold out and starting pitching Pepsi. It's that a slick little thriller called Layer Cake had the unforgivable misfortune of opening this weekend, automatically relegating it to the land of few showtimes and little press coverage. But do not fall victim to the hype machine; Layer Cake is the superior film. It is full of several things that Revenge of the Sith lacks: uniformly intriguing performances, carefully crafted dialogue, and intelligent characters.

Our story opens with a nameless drug dealer (Daniel Craig) explaining his world in refreshingly honest terms. "Always remember that one day all this drug monkey business will be legal," he quips during his opening narration. "They won't leave it to people like me...not when they finally figure out how much money is to be made." We get a wonderful opening sequence of Craig's character wandering through imaginary aisles of FCUK brand cocaine, much like Jack wandering through his catalogue apartment in Fight Club.

Though not quite as brilliant as David Fincher's 1999 story of male bonding in a postmodern world, Layer Cake is similarly inspired for most of its running time. While many action movies have drawn us in with a seamlessly edited opener like Layer Cake's, few make such a concerted effort to remain interesting and fresh for more than a few minutes. Layer Cake is a delight for the attention-deficient crowd. We don't get the feeling that the filmmakers called it an early day and let some computer (running Windows Millennium Edition, no doubt) write, produce, and film the last three reels.

Let's get back to our nameless drug-dealer, who is called XXXX in the credits, not to be confused with XXX (Vin Diesel in the 2002 film of the same name) or Professor X (Patrick Stewart from 2000's X-Men). XXXX is not a gangster. He hates guns, violence, and even drugs. These elements of his trade disgust him and—more importantly, to his utilitarian mind—add unnecessary risk to the business.

But he likes money, and he is naïve enough to think that he can make some quick cash before bowing out unnoticed. Of course, if this type of maneuver worked, movies wouldn't be nearly as entertaining. Luckily for us, the middlemen who distribute XXXX's product are not too keen on the idea of losing such a reliable cash flow. They call him in on an assignment to find a rich man's missing daughter. And thus the fun begins.

The plot has a meandering quality to it. You may find it confusing. This is probably because it is confusing. It is not, however, the main point. Layer Cake is all about colorful characters, stunning visuals, and amusing British-isms. Along his journey, our protagonist meets at least a dozen people, each memorable and interesting enough to occupy a story all his own. They represent every level of the drug business layer cake, from pathetic junkies to the very wealthy godfathers of the new millennium.

Americans have always made their criminals into aristocrats. In this film, there are characters that would probably have been actual British aristocrats a few generations ago, but are now merely wealthy businessmen who—like XXXX—have realized that there is good money in drugs. This new breed of gangsters has all the charm and class of Lord Peter Wimsey, but from time to time, they let slip a few choice phrases that would make poor Wimsey's ears fall off. The Brits are crossing the pond by making the lowlifes high again, in more ways than one.

These new aristocrats, along with up-and-comers like our friend XXXX, are exceptionally intelligent and inventive. It is a pleasure to watch them calculate and get excited about the game. They are attracted to drugs because of the money, but also because of the thrilling chase. Yet despite their illegal and often brutal activities, they retain an aura of class.

At one point, XXXX has been definitively, unquestionably outsmarted by another dealer. In some ways, he's understandably angry. But it's also clear that he is in awe of his better. Such tendencies make these characters instantly accessible: They're smart, and they appreciate a good con as one might appreciate high art. Layer Cake is undeniably gritty and violent, but its characters are all made to seem quite reasonable, even in their most repugnant moments. They are simply good economists who have a clear idea of how much money is worth and, therefore, how much they will do to get it.

This cornucopia of characters is woven into a highly intelligent film, chock full of brilliant cinematography and wonderful music. Layer Cake is not a realistic picture. It is a stylized version of what we wish criminals were like. This is not the suspension of disbelief, but rather the glorification of it. Events do not seem arbitrary; they just happen to operate by a set of rules foreign to our dimension.

It is perhaps for this reason that the ending was a slight disappointment. In terms of the actual happenings of the last 10 minutes, I have no objections. However, I did have an almost palpable feeling that the filmmakers wanted just one more twist in the plot—at any cost. I would have been happier with less closure—either the same events with more energy, or different events that did not so conveniently tie up loose ends. After all, Layer Cake is at its strongest when it is building at impossible velocity, not backing away to give you a chance to breathe and think about what just occurred.

Fortunately, that is exactly what the film does for the vast majority of its running time. If you are obliged to see Revenge of the Sith, make it a double feature with this underappreciated British gem.