Despite intriguing echoes of Weill and Brecht in its seamy criminal characters and dank prison-life milieu, all played for laughs, "Life Is a Bluff" is mostly a bust. Oddly amiable, if one overlooks its lapses of logic, taste and mise-en-scene, "Bluff" is a quirky mix-up of crooked youthful characters straight out of "True Romance" and a father-son reckoning that attempts both comedy and pathos. Pic won't bust out of German pens to generate more than slight heists across the borders.

Despite intriguing echoes of Weill and Brecht in its seamy criminal characters and dank prison-life milieu, all played for laughs, “Life Is a Bluff” is mostly a bust. Oddly amiable, if one overlooks its lapses of logic, taste and mise-en-scene, “Bluff” is a quirky mix-up of crooked youthful characters straight out of “True Romance” and a father-son reckoning that attempts both comedy and pathos. Pic won’t bust out of German pens to generate more than slight heists across the borders.

Film’s hero, young Harry Butzbach (Ben Becker), is quickly established as a kid from the worst side of the wrong side of the tracks. His mother’s an aging, obese hooker, and his long-lost father, Willi (Mario Adorf), is serving time in a German prison for crimes Harry imagines to be grandiose and heroic. When Harry and his slatternly teenage g.f., Marlies (Muriel Baumeister), are arrested for car theft — on a trip to visit his father — they’re incarcerated in the same (coed) country penitentiary as the elder Butzbach.

“Bluff” proceeds to humorously mine the oddball characteristics and denizens of this decidedly low-rent house of corrections, while exploring madcap family dynamics courtesy of Harry’s ability to con prison officials into bunking him in his father’s cell. Male and female inmates have their own sex-talk hot lines, speaking through the pipes that connect the toilets on each of their respective floors. Willi’s convict paramour becomes Marlies’ cellmate, conveniently linking the four main characters in a chatty, ribald coming-of-age meets coming-of-wisdom jail-house tale.

Writer-director Peter Zingler makes his feature film debut, after careers as a novelist and a television writer, following a stint as a burglar that landed him a prison term. Pic presumably draws upon insights drawn from his personal experiences, but “Bluff” is so broadly sketched and shaggy that it doesn’t capitalize on its insider touches, such as the goofy, Rube Goldberg cell-life contraptions, the relationships between guards and inmates and the strange codes of conduct that define the cons.

Perfs range from serviceable to stock, with vet actress Elke Sommer’s turn as Willi’s love interest providing depth as well as comic sparks. Lensing by Jorg Seidl appeared adequate, as viewed on the Beta video provided for the film’s Cannes market screenings.

Life Is a Bluff

(ALLES NUR TARNUNG)

Production

(German) A ZZ Films production. (International sales: Media Luna, Cologne.) Produced by Daniel Zuta, Peter Zingler. Directed, written by Peter Zingler.

Crew

Camera (color), Jorg Seidl; editor, Uli Leipold; music, Gunter Moll; sound (Dolby SR). Reviewed at Cannes Film Festival (market), May 12, 1997. Running time: 93 MIN.

With

With: Mario Adorf, Elke Sommer, Ben Becker, Muriel Baumeister, Heinz Hoenig.
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