As a wise man once said, there's a fine line between stupid and clever. He could have been talking about Lucky Number Slevin, a twisty con-man thriller from British director Paul McGuigan (Gangster No. 1) and American TV writer Jason Smilovic (creator of the late, great ABC series "Karen Sisco") that unsteadily walks the narrow path dividing these two extremes. The film's cleverness can be glimpsed in the sly performances of the ensemble cast, which includes such dependable scene-stealers as Morgan Freeman and Stanley Tucci, as well as better-than-they've-been-before lightweights like Josh Hartnett and Lucy Liu. No matter how many times the labyrinthine plot doubles back on itself, these actors always seem perfectly clear on where things are going. Like the best cinematic con artists, they make the audience feel as if they're in on the scam, while always staying one step ahead of us.

Unfortunately, their efforts are regularly undermined by Smilovic's smug screenplay, which begins as a kind of irony-laden gloss on North by Northwest only to veer wildly into Oldboy territory in the final act. The movie opens with a roughly 15-minute prologue that features a wheelchair-bound man (Bruce Willis) giving an impromptu lecture on the Kansas City Shuffle-a classic con game that's built on the art of misdirection-to a bored youth while they sit an empty airport lounge. To illustrate his point, Willis recounts the grisly story of a family man who bet a bit too much money on the races and wound up paying off his debts with his life and the lives of his wife and young son. Of course, by the end of this sequence, it's made very clear that this whole tale was an elaborate misdirect that has nothing to do with the actual plot of the film. Or does it...?

From here, we're introduced to our Roger O. Thornhill, a dopey dork named Slevin (Hartnett) who is in New York City to visit his buddy Nick. He arrives at Nick's apartment only to find it empty, but decides to make himself at home anyway. That turns out to be a mistake when two burly enforcer types show up looking for his pal, who apparently owes a substantial amount of money to a gambling ring run by a notorious local kingpin. Even though Slevin repeatedly insists he's not the guy they're looking for, he is dragged before the Boss (Freeman) and presented with an offer he can't refuse: Kill the son of the Boss' archrival, the Rabbi (Ben Kingsley), and his debts will be forgiven. Turn the assignment down and he'll be the one that winds up taking a dirt nap. Slevin reluctantly accepts the job on Nick's behalf (what are friends for, right?), but his troubles don't end there. First the Rabbi catches wind that there's a new player in town and orders a meeting. Slevin then finds himself targeted by a group of New York's Finest, led by the tenacious Detective Brikowski (Tucci). To top it off, Willis' character re-enters the story and seems to be working with both crime bosses. Meanwhile, all Slevin really wants to do is hook up with Lindsay (Liu), the sexy morgue attendant who lives down the hall and has a thing for men of mystery.

If you think all of this sounds silly, Smilovic and McGuigan would agree with you. So rather than hide the plot's many absurdities, they play them for laughs. As a result, the film's level of self-awareness almost ranks in the Charlie Kaufman territory. This approach is fun at first, particularly in the early scenes between Liu and Hartnett, which crackle with romantic chemistry. At the same time, Smilovic goes too far in letting us know he's in on the joke. He repeatedly parodies the language of the heist genre, throwing in lines like "His dreams were the stuff of pipes" or Freeman's impassioned discourse about the Shmoo, that pudgy cartoon blob of Al Capp and "Flintstones" fame. This sort of dialogue might have sounded amusing in his head, but it just comes across as overly self-satisfied-and more than a little dumb-onscreen. Worse still, the playfulness of the first half makes it difficult to swallow the jarring shift in tone that occurs in the movie's third act, which takes the story to a darker place than either Smilovic or Guigan are willing to go. In the end, Lucky Number Slevin is like that guy you knew in high school who seemed cool and interesting until he opened his mouth.

-Ethan Alter