As you decide whether you're ready to return to the multiplex, "The Burnt Orange Heresy," perhaps the first new movie in theaters in months, offers a few things to get excited about.
The sleekly perverted art-world thriller was crafted by Scott B. Smith, for starters. He wrote two dandy novels ("A Simple Plan," which became a made-in-Minnesota classic film, and "The Ruins") and then disappeared for a decade. Actor Claes Bang ("The Square") could be the new Pierce Brosnan, if we need another one. Elizabeth Debicki (the upcoming "Tenet") seems poised for big things, assuming big things ever happen again. Donald Sutherland, always worth watching, has a supporting role. Director Giuseppe Capotondi made the riveting Italian thriller "Double Hour." And Mick Jagger returns to the movies in a very Mick Jaggery part, a Lake Como (Italy, not MN) millionaire who will do anything to get his hands on the mysterious painting that gives the movie its title.
The Rolling Stones singer has great fun playing an amoral louse in "Heresy." His Joseph Cassidy somehow seems to know all the secrets that the other characters are trying to hide, and he enjoys teasing his willingness to spill them.
He knows, for instance -- this should score a chuckle in Minnesota theaters and literally nowhere else -- that the Duluth Art Institute "used to have a really lovely Toulouse-Lautrec" (true, incidentally). He's also familiar with the tiny hometown of Debicki's character Berenice, which happens to be Esko, Minn. (The movie's many sidelong references to the Land O'Lakes translate to "the exact opposite of ancient, elegant Italy.")
"Burnt Orange" coasts along on beautiful shots of Lake Como and toned lovers tangling languidly in 1,000-thread-count sheets. When Berenice and Bang's James can get themselves out of bed, they try to keep up with Joseph, who blackmails James into stealing a painting from reclusive Jerome Debney (Sutherland, and yes, all of the male given names begin with "J" for unexplained reasons). "The Burnt Orange Heresy" is believed to be the only painting Debney has completed in eons, and as a result, it has value for a guy like Joseph, who basically wants everything he can't have.
"Burnt Orange" has a striking opening, in which James lectures students on art-world fakery/authenticity, and a dynamite conclusion, with a sadistic twist that lands like the denouement of a classic mystery novel. In an intriguing way that I shouldn't say too much about, it starts out like one kind of movie, a "To Catch a Thief"-style romp, but turns out to be something much darker and more provocative, seemingly inspired by the way the art world chews up and spits out women.
The middle, however, has issues. Bang makes his mansplaining James loathsome but compelling, sort of like cashew "cheese," but his creepiness is obvious so early that there's not much happening in the middle 30 minutes of "Burnt Orange." We know he's going to do terrible things, but the movie makes us wait too long for them to play out, and it doesn't help that Smith's script marks time with such meaningless nonsense as "Lying is easy when you tell the truth." Huh?
The movie rights itself in the end, though, and its title is wittily designed to gird it against criticism. When James asks Jerome what the title of his painting, "The Burnt Orange Heresy," refers to, Jerome tells him it's meaningless -- but he likes needling "critics who are always searching for meaning where there is none."
'THE BURNT ORANGE HERESY'
3 stars (out of 4)
Rating: R for nudity, violence and language.
Running time: 1 hour, 39 minutes
Where to watch: In theaters and on demand.
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