Decorative and dull, Giuseppe Tornatore’s The Best Offer explores the quickly developed obsession an über-professional, Virgil Oldman (Geoffrey Rush), fosters for a mysterious client. Enshrouded in a stilted and sterile life of fine art and dining, Virgil is overtaken by a bit of intrigue when a young, anxious heiress, Claire (Sylvia Hoeks), calls him to request his evaluation of the furniture and art left in an expansive villa by her deceased parents. Claire’s agoraphobia allows her to communicate with the lonely art appraiser only via telephone and through the closed door of her bedroom in her inherited residence. Titillated by the fragile voice on the other side of the wall and enchanted by the masterpiece-filled manse, Virgil finds the cockles of his heart and mind warmed for the first time in his largely celibate, similarly hermetic life.
Virgil has his own OCD-fueled hang-ups; he’s a glove-wearing germaphobe who uses a room in his apartment for his rigidly curated private collection of hundreds of female portraits. In turn, Claire’s own neuroses manifest a realization in Virgil that perhaps he needs to explore women beyond the canvas. Meanwhile, on his visits to Claire’s villa, Virgil finds archaic cogs and machinery parts, and with the help of a young fixer-upper, Robert (Jim Strugess), he tries to figure out which ancient machinery they belong to. As Virgil continually returns to Robert with more parts for what appears to be an old automaton, it becomes clear that the younger man functions primarily as a sounding board and lazy screenwriting device to coax out Virgil’s inner thoughts.
Achieved through what looks like a dark blue-hued Instagram filter, the film’s moody visual style is undermined by the story’s feeble plot and weak psychological acumen. Not only does the lopsided power dynamic to Virgil and Claire’s romance exude an icky tone of dependency, the scrutiny of their mental illnesses is offensively flippant. Worse yet, the screenplay is encumbered by a deadening literalism, beginning with the protagonist’s name reflecting both the Rush character’s chasteness and his age. Of roughly the dozen risible similes trotted out by multiple characters, the most unbelievable are “Living with a woman is like taking part in an auction sale; you never know if yours is going to be the best offer” and “Emotions are like a work of art. They can be forged so they seem just like the original, but they are forgery.”
That second point overstates an idea that runs throughout The Best Offer, as the film, so dependent on gloppy metaphors and its baroque Ennio Morricone score, clumsily takes the form of a didactic cautionary tale about the insidiousness of inauthenticity in life and in art. It’s a poor man’s Vertigo in the end, attempting to capture an enigmatic aura that surrounds an out-of-reach female beauty, but lacking in the compelling qualities that Hitchcock was able to evoke through poetic rhythms, emotional yearning, and hypnotic atmosphere. And after two hours of leaden exposition and anemic character study, it attempts to justify all its implausibilities with a hazy twist and a magical, omniscient midget (no joke) who lays all the cards on the table. Ultimately, The Best Offer ascribes to the falsehood that a rarefied milieu inherently infuses a film with intelligence, as if inept execution can be covered up by pretty lensing.