SUNDANCE REVIEW: ‘The Convincer’ Is a ‘Poor Man’s Fargo’

The Convincer - Movie Still - 2011
A black comedy that is neither dark nor funny enough to achieve those aspirations.

Greg Kinnear’s insurance salesman character lacks charm, which could spell trouble for the box office aspirations of film director Jill Sprecher, who wrote the screenplay with her sister, Karen Sprecher.

PARK CITY — (Premieres) For most of its running time, The Convincer plays like a poor man’s Fargo, where the cold Midwestern climate leads characters with low morals and even lower IQs to perform felonious, even bloody deeds. Then the film switches gears in an unexpected way. That switch, surprising and amusing as it is, comes too late. The film still feels like a lame foray into Coen Brothers territory.

Audiences’ embrace of The Convincer will depend on how much they enjoy seeing a rather despicable character squirm. Greg Kinnear has a knack for making such personalities fun. But here the charms of Mickey Prohaska, insurance salesman, elude him. This may spell trouble for the box office aspirations of this film from director Jill Sprecher (Clockwatchers), who once again wrote the screenplay with her sister, Karen Sprecher.

The introduction of their protagonist, or perhaps one should say anti-hero, couldn’t be more negative. Mickey is a salesman always looking for a sucker. He treats the act of salesmanship not as an opportunity to build excitement for a product but rather a con job. In other words, he’s a natural-born liar.

This extends into his personal relationships. His wife (Lea Thompson) has kicked him out of the house and his secretary (Michelle Arthur) scarcely believes a word he says. One thing leads to another and soon a new salesman (David Harbour) inadvertently brings him to his next sucker, one that may save his dying insurance business if not his marriage.

A retired farmer (Alan Arkin) decides to take out a policy. In a visit to his remote Wisconsin house, Mickey stumbles onto the fact that an old violin he possesses may have extreme value. The rest of the movie gets embroiled in Mickey’s increasingly desperate efforts to pry that violin from the old man.

Crimes get committed, which escalate into a bloody felony and frantic cover-up that brings to mind Fargo’s infamous wood-chipper scene. A security alarm installer played by Billy Crudup adds a note of mental instability to Mickey’s bottomless amorality.

Alex Wurman’s bouncy music tries to convince you all this is ever so funny but instead it seems mostly silly, a kind of fake comic behavior divorced from real human behavior. The Coens always root their extravagant crimes in mankind’s all-too-real penchant for avarice and violence. By contrast, the characters played by Kinnear and Crudup are goofballs whose malevolence is patently artificial.

As noted, the Sprecher Sisters are performing a slight-of-hand even the Coen Brothers might appreciate. Who knows, maybe this will rescue the tepid black comedy for some audience members. But even this is awkwardly done on screen, where suddenly, after the movie is winding down, it’s revealed that Mickey is relating the whole story to a bar mate well after the events in the film.

Despite a modest budget, tech credits are solid, which gives the film its many fine, chilly scenes of a Midwestern winter.