James Figueras (Claes Bang) is an art critic so charmingly slick he can sell a tourist audience in Milan on a painting simply by making up stories about it. In attendance at his lecture is Berenice Hollis (Elizabeth Debicki), a vacationing teacher from Minnesota — or is she a seductive tower of blond ambition with a secret agenda? Given the laws of cinematic attraction, their coupling is as quick as it is inevitable. So it’s no surprise that filthy-rich art collector Joseph Cassidy (Mick Jagger) extends an invitation for both of them them to stay at his villa in Lake Como. Most audiences would be content just to watch Bang, the Danish star of The Square, mix it up with Debicki, the Aussie-Polish scene-stealer from The Great Gatsby and Widows, in picturesque Italy — all under the mischievous gaze of a man dripping rock-star glamor. (Those lips! That twitch!)
Still, the makers of The Burnt Orange Heresy, directed by Giuseppe Capotondi from a script that Scott B. Smith adapted from the 1971 novel by crime writer Charles Willeford, have provided a plot that needlessly spoils most of the indecent fun. Switching locations from Florida to Italy is not the problem. It’s the growing heaviness of the narrative. That’s when Cassidy hatches a plan to have Figueras snatch a painting from Jerome Debney (Donald Sutherland at his buoyant best), a recluse who hasn’t practiced his art in years. A fire destroyed his previous lifetime output — but he may be creating new work at a studio that’s coincidentally tucked away on Cassidy’s estate. Debney takes quite a shine to Hollis, paving the way for light-fingered critic/con artist to get close and the script to swerve in directions that don’t exactly re-invent the film-noir playbook. Bang and Debicki go through the motions as the story that gets lost in the familiar corners of arson, forgery, betrayal and murder.
Capotondi, tackling his first film in English after his promising 2009 debut with The Double Hour, gets by — for a little while, at least — on striking visuals from cinematographer David Ungaro, a propulsive piano score from Craig Armstrong, and indisputable star chemistry from Bang, Debicki and Jagger. But there’s no faking it in the final third when the film’s flimsy structure collapses in on itself. What a bummer that a movie that paints itself as a scintillating, sexually-charged, art-world thriller ends in a swamp of failed intentions.