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The Score (R)
Paramount Pictures

The Score is the kind of movie that makes every movie fan in the world want to bemoan the state of American cinema. It is promising based on the marquee names alone -- two of the best actors in filmmaking's short history, Marlon Brando and Robert DeNiro, playing alongside perhaps the best male actor in filmmaking's future, Edward Norton. But as we quickly remember, movies require a tight script, sure-handed direction, careful photography, a fitting score, controlled editing and dozens of other details. The Score gets the acting just right, but fails in virtually every other area.

The story is uninspired. Nick Wells (DeNiro) is a Montreal jazz club owner by day, a high-stakes cat burglar by night. Max Baron (Brando) is a crime boss of sorts who supplies Wells with job leads, and when the movie opens he's got a hot tip he can't wait to share. If Wells can nail this heist, they'll both be millionaires.

But there are Two Big Problems: 1) The job is in Montreal, and Wells has a rule against committing crimes in his hometown; 2) It involves a partner, and Wells never works with partners.

The partner-to-be is Jackie Teller (Norton), a young man with a mysterious knack for pulling off impossibly difficult crimes. The writers apparently forgot to develop a backstory for Teller. Both Wells and the audience are supposed to take it for granted that he knows what he's doing, and after some minor resistance (see Big Problems 1 and 2 above) he agrees to do the job.

Oh, and there is a Third Problem: Wells is in love with--or at least sleeping with--an airline stewardess named Diane (Angela Bassett) who'd prefer he stop committing crimes and commit to her instead. But he forgets about her pretty easily, and we do, too.

Then there's the musical score, which doesn't. Think bad 1970s cops and robbers flicks, substitute annoying trombones for annoying synthesizers, and you'll be close. With few exceptions, the score is painfully bad. (There is an appearance by the great jazz vocalist Cassandra Wilson, and we are very, very thankful for her 30 seconds on screen.)

Director Frank Oz has done much better work than this, guiding the funny films Bowfinger, In and Out and Dirty Rotten Scoundrels. And he's a brilliant puppeteer -- Jim Henson's Muppets owe a great deal to Oz, and he gave a whole generation the willies with his performance of Yoda in the Star Wars movies.

But this time, Oz seems to have failed to make the transition from puppets to people. Maybe he needed Brando, De Niro, Norton and Bassett to have sticks up their butts and to open with a rendition of "The Rainbow Connection." These four are truly amazing performers, and they squeeze as much as they can out of a lifeless script. But without help from their writers and director, there simply isn't much to do.

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