An English-lingo art-world thriller with shades of “Hugo” should be a creatively winning combination for Giuseppe Tornatore’s sumptuous “The Best Offer,” yet beneath the varnish lies a work crying out for proper subtext. Aiming for a Hitchcockian take on an eccentric auctioneer (well-handled by Geoffrey Rush) who becomes enamored of an heiress with severe agoraphobia, the pic ends up more in Dan Brown territory, with over-obvious setups and phony insight into the art establishment. Such quibbling won’t hurt B.O., which reached nearly $9 million at home after three weeks, and will likely be replicated in far-flung territories.
Rush plays overly fastidious high-end auctioneer Virgil Oldman (a name and figure of Dickensian spirit), a monomaniacal expert on every piece of art and furniture that passes through his perpetually gloved hands. His opinion is unquestioned (no bothersome art historians appear) and his skills on the sales podium are unchallenged. Oddly, no one in this closed world notices that he’s miscataloguing priceless artworks, which he gets failed artist Billy (Donald Sutherland) to snatch up for a song so that Oldman can add them to his growing collection.
He’s amassed a treasure of furniture and sculpture, but most of all, hidden from the public in a secret vault that would be the envy of a James Bond villain, there lurks an assemblage of the most famous portraits of women ever made (auds with only a passing familiarity with the world’s museums will recognize these gems by the truckload).
The auctioneer gets a call from an obviously hysterical woman named Claire (Dutch actress Sylvia Hoeks) asking him to appraise the contents of a villa she’s inherited. What he finds is a treasure trove of objects, but no Claire: The 27-year-old suffers from agoraphobia, and hasn’t been seen in years. Salivating at the quality of the antiques, and intrigued by what he suspects might be parts to a priceless automaton that needs assembling, Oldman agrees to catalogue the collection. In the process, he becomes obsessed with the mysterious Claire, who communicates through a closed door within the villa.
At the start, Oldman is little more than a supercilious caricature, yet as he warms to the idea of Claire, he becomes more human. He’s never slept with a woman, yet is fixated on their representations on canvas; now, he’s finally found flesh-and-blood he desires, but she’s invisible. Hiding when she thinks he’s gone affords him a glimpse; she panics when she first discovers him, but soon relaxes in his company, and the love affair begins.
Mechanical wiz Robert (Jim Sturgess), who’s entrusted with putting together the trail of automaton pieces Oldman conveniently keeps discovering, teaches the auctioneer the appropriate Casanova moves. But what exactly the mechanical figure (practically plucked from “Hugo”) is doing in the movie, aside from offering a thin excuse for a plot twist, is one of many nagging questions.
The pic uses the polish of faux-sophistication and the cliched old-man/nubile-woman fantasy to distract viewers from dissecting the plot. Not that it’s especially difficult, due to clumsily introduced hints and excessive exposition. When the pic slips in an off-handedly dire warning, shouldn’t that be enough of a clue? Does it really need to reappear in a flashback?
Fortunately Rush overcomes his character’s exaggerations to create something that approaches a real person (plus his Brioni suits are enviable). Not so Hoeks, whose voice (and she’s mostly just that) lacks charisma; and when Claire finally does appear, she’s more annoying than obsession-worthy.
With a budget of $18 million and shooting locations throughout Italy as well as Prague, “The Best Offer” certainly looks handsome, featuring plenty of eye-catching antiques and stunning real estate (kudos to designers Maurizio Sabatini and Raffaella Giovannetti). Though most locales are undeniably Italian, the setting is meant to be of indeterminate origin, and most people speak with English accents, presumably because that’s the proper tone for the rarefied world of art sales.