Scores, bores and metaphors

The new Hollywood blockbuster The Score is not much cop as a film - but not half bad as a metaphor for acting.

Allison Felus

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Most filmgoers will be excited about The Score – a new movie starring Robert De Niro, Edward Norton and Marlon Brando. But they might find themselves feeling rather less excited after watching it.

The Score is a standard heist film, with De Niro as a seasoned safe-cracker convinced by his criminal boss (Brando) and a cocky young upstart (Norton) to indulge in that well-worn plot device: the Last Big Score. Two hours later and you’ll be wondering why it wasn’t called ‘The Bore’ instead.

But there is one way to enjoy The Score – by watching it as a metaphor for acting. Looked at in this way, the movie turns from a bad film into a meditation on Brando, De Niro and Norton’s places in the film industry.

Like many films trying to save on production costs, The Score was filmed in Canada. As a result, it has the usually Italian-American drawling De Niro throwing around French phrases like confetti. His ‘Bonjour madames’ ring with a method actor’s nonchalant self-awareness. And his ‘act’ in the film as a responsible citizen of Montreal who also happens to be a jewel thief neatly overlaps with his ‘act’ as a jewel thief who also happens to be a highly paid film actor – they both had to learn the language.

Similarly, Norton’s disguise as a disabled man reflects the annoying trend for ‘serious’ actors to seek out physically disabled, psychotic, drug-addicted or otherwise ‘troubled’ roles in an attempt to get themselves in line for an Oscar nomination. (See Norton’s own Oscar-nominated performances in Primal Fear and American History X as examples.)

There is one great scene where this acting subtext rises to the fore. While discussing their careers as thieves, De Niro tells Norton: ‘In this business, talent means nothing if you don’t make the right choices.’ For a brief moment the film feels as if it has turned into a documentary – as if the audience is eavesdropping on a conversation between Bob and Ed discussing their shared vocation. For what is true for criminals is doubly true for movie stars – after all, the movie world is full of talentless hacks raking in big pay cheques while gifted performers get pushed to the margins.

Norton himself has acknowledged that the jewel-thief-as-actor metaphor helped him sustain his interest during filming. It’s just a shame that director Frank Oz didn’t push the subtext through to the end of the movie and make the ending more self-consciously Darwinian. But, without giving too much away, the ending of The Score would have us believe that the older, more established generation (represented by De Niro) will win out over ambitious greenhorns (represented by Norton). Yet as we all know, survival in Hollywood needs both ruthlessness and youth.

Yes, De Niro is a great actor, but we can already see the ways in which he is being rendered obsolete by younger actors like Norton, who sometimes startle us with their acting. Didn’t anybody on set remember that the same thing happened to Marlon Brando when the young actors of De Niro’s generation burst on to the scene in the 1970s?

But in The Score Brando also reminds us that the old greats can still be great. When he first turns his head to meet the camera’s gaze, it’s like the sun coming out from behind a cloud. By cashing in on his avuncular familiarity while remaining true to the film’s acting metaphor, Brando alone makes The Score worth watching.

The Score is on general release in the USA and will be released in the UK on 28 September 2001. See The Score website.

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