In The Best Offer, Geoffrey Rush plays Virgil Oldman, an auctioneer and art appraiser whose reluctance to take emotional risks is symbolized by his germophobia—he won’t pick up a phone without first wrapping it in tissue, and his bedroom features a gigantic wall of shelving entirely devoted to expensive gloves. Such a blunt, shorthand approach to characterization works just fine in a goofy fantasy (Edward Scissorhands, say), but it tends to clang in a more naturalistic context, especially when combined with an illustrative surname like Oldman, meant to remind the viewer that a May-December romance is taking place. Throw in a lifelong agoraphobe as well, and there’s a serious threat of metaphorical overload. Thankfully, The Best Offer is reasonably light on its feet in most other respects, spinning its mystery with confident verve. If its destination is patently obvious from the outset, the journey does at least offer scattered pleasures.
Always on the lookout for hidden treasures, with the help of a confederate (Donald Sutherland, in a role so negligible that it borders on being a cameo) he’s bought numerous valuable paintings at a fraction of their real value. Oldman perks up when he receives a call from a woman named Claire (Dutch actress Sylvia Hoeks), who’s looking to auction off her family’s estate. Claire doesn’t show up for their initial meeting, however, and it soon emerges that she hasn’t set foot out of that house since she was a little girl; she insists on conducting all of her business by speaking to Oldman through a closed door, though he sometimes hides in the house to spy on her. Eventually, coached by a debonair associate (Jim Sturgess), to whom he brings items needing mechanical repair, Oldman succeeds in coaxing Claire out of her hidden room and into his arms… though whether she can live up to the ideal created by the hundreds of magnificent female portraits he keeps locked in a hidden room of his own remains an open question.
Written and directed by Giuseppe Tornatore ( Cinema Paradiso), working entirely in English for the first time in his long career, The Best Offer suffers from the same fate as many similar films: There are just too many elements that have no apparent purpose or function unless things are not as they appear, which makes it terribly easy to guess where it’s headed. (Especially egregious is the use of Kiruna Stamell, an actress with dwarfism, as an autistic savant.) All the same, Rush has a lot of fun with Oldman’s gradual thaw, and the questions the movie raises about authenticity and deception, while not remotely in the same heady league as those in Certified Copy, nonetheless allow it to conclude on a satisfyingly ambiguous note. Ironically, though, this is exactly the kind of mildly diverting film most people wouldn’t leave their house to see.