A well-observed ensembler about a handful of smalltime crooks with medium-sized ambitions, “Nickel and Dime” is a solid sophomore effort from thesp-turned-helmer Sam Karmann following his wry 1999 debut “Kennedy and I.” Sober but engaging, “Nickel” covers the range of behavior from old-con wisdom to youthful impetuousness, and can’t be accused of making a life of crime look attractive. Succession of talky but well-directed scenes, lensed widescreen with a slightly nervous handheld camera, exude an air of seedy fatality, positioning pic in showcases of contempo French cinema.
Written with reformed ex-con Desir Carre, screenplay — set over the course of one week in working-class ‘burbs in the shadow of Montmartre — has the low-key ring of truth. Chez Roger, the unpretentious cafe tended by its namesake (Philippe Nahon), is a social hub where local denizens gather to drink, play cards, take phone calls, plot illegal activities and settle scores. Pic gets under way with the arrival of Jacques (Gerard Lanvin) after five years in stir for armed robbery. The strong, silent type, Jacques is sincerely liked and admired by all.
Especially happy to see him is Francis (Jacques Gamblin), a mild-mannered fellow in his early 40s who still lives with his mother (Liliane Rovere, terrific). Francis is embarrassed to tell his buddies he’s taking drama classes and has discovered he loves the adrenaline of being on stage more than the thrill of a scam or a hold-up.
Francis has been pulling off small jobs with Didier (Clovis Cornillac), an impatient younger hood with a gambling problem. Latter compulsively works out and doesn’t know how to talk to his pregnant wife (Sarah Haxaire), who wants him to go straight.
Established wheeler-dealer Marcel (Etienne Chicot) tries to lure Jacques back into crime, but at age 50, Jacques is no longer interested. Francis, ashamed that he has no money for his mom or to eat out with Camille (Julie Durand), the Chez Roger barmaid who shares his love for acting, ill-advisedly goes to see shady Marcel. Jacques’ tentative efforts to reconnect with the opposite sex yield a brief but surprising subplot in which Florence Pernel shines as a femme fatale in a “Gilda”-style dress. But mostly, narrative observes guys being guys, guided in their actions by varying degrees of patience and intelligence.
As Jacques, Lanvin excels in the less-is-more department, and Gamblin winningly expresses the vulnerability of Francis the artist, better at reciting classic French drama than being a tough guy. As Didier, Cornillac embodies chronic antsiness as a lifestyle. Femme cast is very good at showing it’s never fun to be a crook’s wife, girlfriend or mother.
Handheld lensing lends intimacy to the film, but also comes close to wearing out its welcome. The appealingly edgy-cum-nostalgic score is a nice fit.