Berlinale 2014 Review: THE TWO FACES OF JANUARY Proves Middlebrow Is Timeless

They've been making movies like The Two Faces of January since before they made movies. A graying man, his blonde haired bride, and the younger man who comes between them. Crime and chase amidst sun dappled vistas. Cops and con men, cigarettes and Stetson hats. To quote another recent film starring Oscar Isaac, if it ain't new, and never gets old, it's a globe-trotting romantic thriller. 

Isaac stars as Rydal, a late twenties American expat earning his way as tour guide and two-bit con man in 1960s Athens. Rydal's a soulful writer type, hustling visiting tourists for lunch money and writing poetry on the side. When he spots the visiting MacFarlands at the Parthenon, he's sure to have landed two easy marks. It's a crime thriller. He hasn't. 

Viggo Mortensen plays Chester MacFarland, and Kirsten Dunst his wife, Colette. As we later find out, those aren't their real names. No, it seems poor Rydal had the rotten luck to stumble upon two far bigger swindlers than he could have ever hoped to become. Chester is a hard drinking cynic whose easy charm belies an ocean of deceit. As Colette, Dunst is given a lot less to play, though she does what she can and does so with charm. The wheels are set in motion when investment banker Chester accidentally kills a debt collector sent to get back the considerable sum he had stolen from his clients. Rydal had the bad luck to be in the wrong place at the wrong time, so the three of them all hightail it to Crete to hide out. 

The love triangle, plot twists, and scheming machinations that follow are all predictable as can be. And yet, I don't say that as a criticism. The Two Faces of January, the first directorial outing from screenwriter Hossein Amini (Drive), an adaption of the Patricia Highsmith (The Talented Mr. Ripley) novel, is a film you enjoy as you would a roast chicken, or a hamburger with fries and a Coke. Its pleasures come not in the surprises it offers, but in the comforting way it recreates something we know so, so well. 

Which isn't to say the film is without faults. Dunst's character is woefully underwritten, and the film's finale, set in the busy streets of Istanbul, is a little too easy, a little too pat. As the first time film of a longtime writer, it is lacking in visual flair. In the end, it doesn't matter. The Two Faces of January is a film for Sunday afternoons, for noncommittal viewing with grandparents and uncles and aunts. It seems made to exist in perpetuity, to be forever rerun on cable TV. The screening let out only a couple hours ago as I write this, and I've probably already forgotten half of it. 

All you can really say about it is, "well, it doesn't reinvent the wheel." And no, it doesn't. But as long as those wheels keep turning as smoothly as they do here, I'll happily climb on board.
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