THERE'S A VAST DISTANCE between the sort of movie The Best Offer thinks it is (fancy, highbrow, smart) and the sort of movie The Best Offer actually is (lurid, predictable, silly). That distance lends the film an element of camp that, apparently enough, is completely unintentional—Anglophiles with a sense of humor might actually enjoy this one.
Geoffrey Rush plays Virgil, an almost pathologically fussy art appraiser who runs what we're meant to believe is the most famous auction house in all of Europe. He's got an eagle eye for antiques, forgeries, and hidden gems, and he's not above using it to his own advantage: In what's surely an auctioneering no-no, he employs a plant, played by Donald Sutherland, to win prize auctions for himself.
Nefarious, sure, but Virgil's not an entirely unlikeable figure. In his chilly, immaculate home, he keeps a secret room whose walls are lined with famous, expensive portraits of women. And his childhood was spent in a cruel orphanage where art restoration became his only salvation. (You know, it was one of them art orphanages.) Despite his prickly exterior, he's clearly lonely, walled off in a world of his own careful making.
One day, he gets a phone call from a distraught young woman eager to sell her family's estate. He arrives to find a mansion full of treasures and a woman who refuses to show her face. Soon he becomes captivated by both the woman, Claire (Sylvia Hoeks), and by some stray cogs and wheels he discovers in the basement. Claire is an agoraphobic shut-in who never leaves her house; the mechanical parts Virgil finds in her basement belong to a rare 18th century automaton that he is eager to reconstruct. As he collects pieces of the automaton, he simultaneously falls in love with Claire, based exclusively on phone calls and conversations held through a hole in the wall to her secret apartment—when she finally consents to meet him in person, she's revealed to be startlingly beautiful. (Natch.)
Lest you for a second believe that all is what it seems, the pushy soundtrack takes every opportunity to insert ambient menace—with strings this ominous, it's not a question of if something will go wrong, but when. (On the extremely slim chance the soundtrack fails to penetrate, you'll probably pick up on another heavily telegraphed signal of menace: The local pub features a creepy math-whiz dwarf, who sits by the door reciting equations in an affect-less monotone. You know, like dwarfs do.)
The main problem with The Best Offer is that it fails to distinguish between silly devices we're meant to see through and silly devices we're meant to take at face value. The film's main character is a reclusive art-auctioneer-slash-art-thief who lives alone in an immaculate apartment with a secret room full of pilfered portraits. (Also, math dwarf.) That's ridiculous! It then layers on intrigue and deceit, underlining all the while how its art-world metaphors relate to the plot: Every forgery contains something true, we're constantly reminded. (Whatever could that mean?) It's as though the filmmakers expect the audience to be as dumb as Virgil himself, so quick to fall for the fragile, wild woman in the castle. But we're not, and so the transparency of this movie, and its forced, overwrought plot machinations, are obvious from the get-go—and the clichés are so pervasive, they elevate this profoundly silly film into high camp.