1 star (out of four)

What a sad, wasted movie "The Man Who Copied" is. What could have a devastating -- or funny, depending on which way the director chose to go with it -- look at survival just above the poverty line in Latin America instead becomes a journey into ruthless avarice and murder without consequence.

Director Jorge Furtado's film begins with a dry-eyed autobiographical narration by Andre (Lazaro Ramos, who almost holds the whole thing together), a photocopier in a book and stationery store in a working class district of Porto Alegre, Brazil. Andre lives a life of deadly routine between the copy shop and his mother's apartment, where they enact the same gestures over and over.

Because of his poverty, Andre can't date. What would he pay with? So he is reduced, the movie would like to tell us, to spying on his next door neighbor, the nubile and virginal Silvia (Leandra Leal), with a pair of much-prized binoculars it took him almost a year to save for.

Never mind that already there is something terribly fishy about Andre's poverty. In the opening sequence, when he repeats the nullifying copying process until we're numb, he's wearing a different nice and well-pressed shirt in every single shot. Never mind too that he seems to not have any qualms about spending money on art supplies for his illustrations and cartoons -- we don't see him buying these, of course, but we do see the endless supply. Never mind either that in Brazil, where a housing shortage has people living out of piles of garbage, not only do Andre and his mother share a two-bedroom apartment, but his room is actually a huge, cavern-like studio.

Then there's Marines (Luana Piovani), who works in the same shop and has the same money problems. Drop-dead gorgeous, a virgin by a hair-splitting technicality, she openly advertises her search for a rich husband. What does she do with her meager salary? Well, the clothes she's wearing might give us a clue. Different every day, fully accessorized, very trendy.

Maybe there's a money management issue here? Maybe there's a priorities problem?

The scene stealer here is Pedro Cardoso (playing a character also named Cardoso), who works and spends, repeats some of his wardrobe, and painfully longs for Marines. There is something charmingly hapless, honestly vulnerable about the character, but it is Cardoso's performance, not the written Cardoso, who lifts this above the swill. Unfortunately, Furtado doesn't know what to do with him and rewards him without realizing the contradiction of the reward. Money, he seems to be saying, really will get you exactly what you want.

All goes in play because Andre wants to get close to Silvia, so he needs $38. It's the price of a chenille robe he needs to buy at the shop where she works. Ostensibly it's for his mother, but really it's an excuse to get close to Silvia. The film goes to extraordinary lengths to get him a $50 bill to photocopy -- suggesting that his salary, whether weekly or monthly, isn't enough even for that. And so Andre begins a life of crime, originally motivated by what seems relatively innocent goals, and slowly turns into a diabolical scheme of violence, murder and betrayal of the highest order. Andre, by the way, is exposed as a genius criminal mastermind.

Even sweet little Silvia reveals a creepy, killer streak. How these four can trust each other is a mystery. Why director Furtado thinks we might feel sympathy, empathy -- anything except a kind of disgust -- for these four completely materialistic, amoral criminals is another mystery. They're not striking at any injustice, they're not rebelling against society. They're simply seeking a more comfortable life through whatever means necessary -- and that includes taking people's lives for no other reason than it's easy.

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"The Man Who Copied"

Directed and written by Jorge Furtado; photographed by Alex Sernambi; edited by Giba Assis Brazil; music by Leo Henkin; produced by Nora Goulart, Luciana Tomasi. Opens Friday exclusively at Landmark's Century Centre Cinema. MPAA rating: R (language and some brief nudity).