The actors in "Lucky Number Slevin" are clearly having a ton of fun pinballing around in this relentlessly tricky maze of a movie. Morgan Freeman and Ben Kingsley — oops: Sir Ben Kingsley, I mean — play rival crime bosses. Bruce Willis at his most inscrutable plays an assassin named Goodkat. ("You can call me Mr. Goodkat.") And Josh Hartnett plays ... Brad Pitt. Well, no, not really — although he does display a similar shirtless muscularity and a familiar sort of squinty amusement and snickery, lopsided smile. He's very Brad-like, let's say, but in an acceptable way.

Hartnett actually plays a guy named Slevin. We don't meet him until several people have been killed, some in inventively unpleasant ways: a plastic-wrap shroud, a brace of poison needles, and — this is a movie first, I'm almost certain — a fastball to the face. We also get to hear Goodkat weirding out a weary passenger in an airport departure lounge with the story of a horse-doping scam at New York's Aqueduct Raceway back in 1979, and the nice little family that got whacked because a hard-pressed father ("He was tired of being a dog without a day," Goodkat says) stiffed some bookies after his horse took a tumble in the final stretch and failed to place. Then we meet Slevin.

He's just arrived in Manhattan and he's crashing at the apartment of his friend Nick. But Nick has vanished. A girl across the hall named Lindsey (Lucy Liu) turns up and wants to investigate. Then a pair of black thugs bust in looking for Nick. They figure that Slevin must be him, and cart him off to the penthouse headquarters of The Boss (Freeman), who also believes Slevin to be Nick, and therefore responsible for Nick's gambling debts, which total $96,000. The Boss offers to forgive this sum if Nick — or Slevin, whatever — will murder the son of his one-time partner, Shlomo (Kingsley), now a competing gang chief known as the Rabbi, whose own penthouse headquarters, staffed with glowering Hasidic henchmen, is situated directly across the street.

Both of these crooks are being staked out by a police surveillance team led by a tough cop named Brikowski (Stanley Tucci), who wants Slevin to rat out his unwanted new associates. "You should really play ball, kid," he says. "Really?" Slevin replies. "You think I'm tall enough?"

Skulking around the periphery of all this is the shadowy, stone-faced Goodkat, who appears to be working for one of the crime chiefs, although which one is never certain. ("The good news is, my friendship is for sale.")

There is not enough space, even here in the vast digital domain, to delve in any further detail into this movie's insanely convoluted plot. You start out having no idea what's going on; then, about midway through, you think maybe you do have an inkling, sort of; and then, at the end, when the script (by TV guy Jason Smilovic) yanks the rug out from under you, you realize you never had the slightest clue as to what was really happening. It's kind of brilliant, although annoyance might be an equally valid response.

There are many zingy lines ("Nick set you up like a bowling pin," Lindsey tells Slevin), and an occasional deadpan baffler. (The Boss advises Slevin, with a straight face, that "Lying to a dead man's the same as lying to yourself.") Scottish director Paul McGuigan ("Wicker Park") keeps the action barreling along so fast you barely have time to register how confused you are by the plot. And Josh Hartnett has a real comic facility here — its one of his liveliest performances.

But the movie feels oddly insubstantial. Its virtues are for the most part verbal, a matter of sharp writing and deft delivery. It lacks a unifying visual style, and it's a little drab. And Morgan Freeman is too distinguished an actor for this sort of wise-cracking enterprise — he seems to be slumming (and he seems to know it).

As for Ben Kingsley, he's never been an especially charming performer, and he's become even less of one since he was handed a knighthood five years ago. Kingsley claims that his "Sir Ben" billing in this movie was a silly mistake. But he was also billed that way in last year's "A Sound of Thunder." And the esteemed English theater director Jonathan Miller told The Seattle Times earlier this year that Kingsley does indeed insist on being called "Sir Ben" — and "that's because he's a little twerp." In case you've been wondering.


"Friends With Money": Love Connections

Jennifer Aniston finally lights up on the big screen in this sweet, smart comedy about love and money and the confusions that both can cause. Aniston plays Olivia, a pathetically untogether woman in her late 30s — an aimless pothead who has quit her teaching job to work as a maid, and is drifting from one dumb romantic hookup to another with no happy ending in sight.

By embarrassing contrast, Olivia's three best friends, all in their forties, seem to have their lives firmly under control. Christine (Catherine Keener) is part of a successful L.A. screenwriting team with her husband, David (Jason Isaacs) — they bat dialogue back and forth at each other over the lids of their laptops. Jane (Frances McDormand) is a clothing designer whose husband, the twinkly Aaron (Simon McBurney), adores her. And Franny (Joan Cusack) lives a life of near-perfect contentment with her husband, Matt (Greg Germann): They have lots of inherited money, great kids, great sex, the works — they even hold hands in bed.

But Christine and David's marriage has wilted; they barely notice each other anymore. ("Why do you look different?" she asks him idly. " 'Cause I shaved my beard," he says. "Three weeks ago.") And Jane is a menopausal wreck who's sinking into sloth (she's stopped washing her hair because "It makes my arms tired") and who flips out at the slightest provocation. (Encountering a woman on the street who has pretentiously named her new baby Tao, Jane breaks out in snorts of loud, derisive laughter.) Not only that, there are also some doubts within the group, rarely voiced, about the sexual orientation of Jane's husband. ("He's so gay," says Christine. "It's like somebody's sitting there with a tree growing out of his head and nobody talks about it.")

As for Franny, well, it's a measure of the generally cliché-free quality of the script, by director Nicole Holofcener ("Lovely & Amazing"), that Franny and Matt really are happy. They may feel a little guilty about all the money they have, but they give a lot of it to charity, and they otherwise love their life together. While in most movies it's axiomatic that rich people must be screwed up somehow, these two suggest that, while money may not buy happiness, it doesn't hurt, if you're happy anyway, to be rich, too. On the way home from a swank night out, he still tells her, "You were the prettiest one there."

Franny, Jane and Christine all feel a little guilty about Olivia. While they live lives of tasteful affluence, her only brush with luxury is making the rounds of beauty shops to cadge free sample packets of her favorite Lancôme skin cream. They can't believe she's decided to hire herself out as a maid. ("I don't know how you can clean other people's toilets," Jane says. "I can barely stand to touch my own.") And they're appalled by her choices in men. Olivia pines for a married guy who used her for a one-night stand, and now she's involved with a personal trainer, a beefy lug named Mike (Scott Caan), who's carnally fixated on a girl he once boffed back in high school. ("She was my girlfriend for two hours," he says, "then she dumped me.") Mike tags along with Olivia on her housekeeping rounds, mainly to find novel new places to have sex with her. He also takes a cut of her cleaning fees, and for Christmas leeringly gives her a racy French maid's uniform to wear while she's vacuuming. He tells her to call him "Mr. Mike" while she's doing this.

Does everything eventually work out for everybody? No more so than in real life. There are big changes and small accommodations, and one lovely surprise at the end. You come away from the movie happily buzzed by Holofcener's witty intelligence (she also directed several episodes of "Sex and the City"), and by the simple, understated excellence of the actors.

You also feel happy for Jennifer Aniston. She creates a confused and slightly ornery character here, and her comic timing is a treat. (There's a wonderful moment when she stops a restaurant conversation dead with the suggestion that, instead of mounting glittery charity dinners to raise funds for this or that cause, rich folks should instead just give their money directly to the oppressed people in question. Who among us has not thought this very thing?) Aniston's future movie prospects suddenly look a little brighter — these, perhaps, are the "friends" she really needed.

—Kurt Loder


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