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Anatomy of a Scam

Six Degrees of Separation, one of the best movies in months, takes the jump from play to screen with wit and brilliance

The movie season is about to get interesting -- finally. Six Degrees of Separation, with its wit, structural and visual daring, and bracing take on its characters, is only the second film in months (after Schindler's List) to be well worth seeing.

The film opens memorably, putting its audience in the agreeable position of being party to a scam. The Kittredges have received a very wealthy South African friend in their Upper East Side apartment, and are about to take him out to dinner. Flan Kittredge (Donald Sutherland, in very fine form) is an independent art dealer, and he needs the friend's backing to secure a painting he will be able to turn quickly for some very good Japanese money. Flan and his wife, Ouisa (Stockard Channing), need the money. They're not rich -- they only live that way -- and are only a stretch of bad luck from losing everything they've accumulated.

Before they can leave the apartment, however, the doorman calls up to say that a friend of their son at Harvard is in the lobby and wants to come up. The couple can't imagine what this is all about, but they agree to see young Paul (Will Smith). They are shocked to learn that he is both black and injured. He's been stabbed, but only lightly. A little first aid is all he needs.

As they tend to Paul, he regales them with tales of their son, and, more impressively, of his father, who is none other than Sidney Poitier, who is about to make a film of Cats. Paul will be in charge of casting the extras. This brush with celebrity opens the Kittredges unreservedly toward the young man, so they accept his invitation to stay in and let him cook them all a gourmet meal.

After dazzling them with his grace, Paul astounds them, and even moves them with his depth, as he launches into an impromptu, impassioned analysis of The Catcher in the Rye, which alone is worth even today's price of admission. After Paul's dramatic recitation, all is well in this crazy world. The South African is ready, even eager, to help his American friends. And Flan and Ouisa, perhaps a bit estranged from their own children, seem ready to adopt Paul as their own. They insist that he at least spend the night with them.

The first half-hour of Six Degrees is just about as good as films have gotten lately. The contrast it offers between the Kittredges' worldliness and Paul's passion is precisely observed, and the film seems to admire both. This, even though we already know from the film's opening scene that Paul is a con man. We've already seen Flan and Ouisa dash around their apartment, looking to see if their guest has stolen anything, gasping over and over, "We could have been killed," before the film flashes back to the night before, when they met Paul.

The film can't quite sustain its opening round. That it comes even reasonably close makes it both great fun and a tightly focused portrait of our perpetually conned times.

After the opening sequence the film takes on a round of parties and art openings (I didn't see the play, but this is probably one way the film opens the story up) at which the Kittredges are coaxed, easily enough, into telling their thrilling story. Along the way they find that other friends have also been visited by young Mr. Poitier. As the circle widens, the talk gets more intense, takes on a life of its own. Paul reappears in the Kittredges' life and, Bartleby-like, would prefer not to leave them.

At this point he becomes more than mere anecdote to Flan and Ouisa. To Flan he's a menace, and for people on the edge, such as the Kittredges, a wild card like Paul is the last thing they need. But Ouisa has come to remember that first night with Paul, flimflammery and all, as the most authentic human contact she's had in a very long time.

The film ends on the tension between husband and wife. For a film that has been so invigorated by ambiguity, its conclusion is too straightforward and optimistic, and it sags a bit at the end.

But by that time, Six Degrees of Separation has already made its mark. Playwright John Guare also wrote the screenplay, and he did an unusually fine job of converting theater to cinema. Director Fred Schepisi is typically interesting here; he may have set a new record for making a former play move on screen. And the actors are strong: it's great to see Donald Sutherland in a role worthy of his wit and intelligence again, but he is largely a foil to Stockard Channing's more complex performance. Will Smith gives a mixed performance, brilliant in places, a little spaced out when his character becomes more vulnerable.

 
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