Tuesday, March 15, 2016

Dirty Rotten Scoundrels

2/4

Starring: Michael Caine, Steve Martin, Glenne Headley, Anton Rogers, Ian McDiarmid

Rated PG (for Crude Humor and Mild Language...I guess)

On the French Riviera, Lawrence Jamieson (Caine) is an ex-pat who is looking for money to fund the fight against the communists in his home country.  He's so successful that one wonders why they haven't won yet.  It's because Lawrence is a British con man whose only goal is to enrich himself.  On the train, he spies Freddy Benson (Martin), con a nice lady into a free dinner.  Lawrence doesn't like competition, so he tries to drive Freddy out.  Eventually, they decide on a bet: whoever can con $50,000 out of Janet Colgate (Headley), the American Soap Queen, gets to stay.  The other has to leave.

It's an ideal set-up for a zany screwball comedy.  It even has the right director, Frank Oz, who is a master at this sort of thing.  Surprisingly, it misses the mark, and by quite a bit.  Pacing and energy are everything in this kind of madcap mayhem, and that's where the film comes up short.  I won't claim that there aren't any laughs to be found here, because there are.  It's just that it has no momentum or ferocity.  Ironically, Oz would go on to direct "Death at a Funeral," which had the manic drive that this film so desperately needed.

It's not the actors' fault.  Caine, Martin, and then-newcomer Glenne Headley give it their all, but they're trapped in a plot that is in dire need of Red Bull.  Few people play a droll Cockney Brit like Michael Caine, and he knows just how to tweak his persona for laughter.  And Steve Martin does his usual trademark shtick.  Tiny-voiced Glenne Headley got a breakthrough with her role here, playing the doe-eyed innocent who is unwittingly being taken advantage of by these two.  She's perfect for the role, adding vulnerability to the character that makes her both endearing and funny.

I'll be the first to admit that this sort of thing is hard to pull off.  Hollywood is littered with failures.  However, there is one movie of this sort that does succeed.  It's called "Heartbreakers."  It's faster-paced, much more clever, and a lot funnier.

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