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LONDON – Even with a script by the Coen brothers, and a classy international cast led by Colin Firth, this contemporary London caper movie falls far short of its potential even as a lightweight comic romp. Director Michael Hoffman, most recently seen behind the camera on the somber 2009 Oscar contender The Last Station, was perhaps the wrong choice to remake Ronald Neame’s zippy 1966 comedy thriller, which starred Michael Caine, Shirley Maclaine and Herbert Lom.
Gambit has just premiered in London before opening nationwide in the UK and Ireland later this month. The starry cast and Coens connection will undoubtedly attract curious fans when it arrives in the US next year, but nobody here is operating at the top of their game. Commercial prospects seem likely to be modest.
First mooted as a remake 15 years ago, Gambit has since passed through the hands of numerous writers, directors and stars including Aaron Sorkin, Frank Cottrell Boyce, Alexander Payne, Robert Altman and Reese Witherspoon. Even after the Coens delivered their screenplay, it remained in development for years. Sitting through this plodding, stagey farce, it is easy to see why.
Firth takes Caine’s role as Harry Deane, a downtrodden art curator who works for Alan Rickman’s bullying, vulgarian media mogul Lionel Shabandar. Seeking revenge for years of ill-treatment, Deane and his forger friend The Major (Tom Courtenay) recruit hard-drinking Texas rodeo queen PJ Puznowski (Cameron Diaz) to help mount an elaborate sting against Shabandar by posing as the owner of a rare canvas by the Impressionist master Claude Monet. If the con goes smoothly, the tyrannical tycoon will lose millions while Deane pockets the payment.
Much like the original movie, promoted with the poster strapline “please don’t give away the beginning”, Hoffman’s remake opens with a perfectly executed version of the scam in which Shabandar swallows the bait and Puznowksi says nothing at all. But it soon transpires this slick fantasy is occurring only in Deane’s imagination.
When the real game is afoot, it starts to unravel almost immediately. Shabandar is suspicious about the painting, but falls for Puznowski, who seizes the chance to slant the scam to her advantage. Deane is forced to frantically improvise a new plan on the hoof, most of which seems to involve him wandering around London’s swish Savoy Hotel wearing no trousers. The recurring sight of an unflustered, pants-free Firth emerges as the main joke of the film, occupying at least half an hour of plot.
To his credit, Firth keeps his performance grounded in downbeat realism while all around are wildly mugging in desperate pursuit of thin, forced laughs. Diaz lays on the hokey Texan firecracker shtick with a shovel, but never convinces as a sassy trailer-park princess. Rickman’s villain is such a crudely drawn cartoon of moneyed arrogance, he is neither menacing nor plausible. A running joke about his fondness for nudity leads to some predictably lowbrow gags.
Meanwhile, contemporary London seems to be awash with boorishly one-dimensional Japanese businessmen and the kind of snooty, snobbish, upper-crust Englishmen only seen nowadays in Woody Allen movies. It takes a skilled comic like Stanley Tucci to makes this carnival of caricatures finally come alive. Playing a camp German rival for Deane’s job, with a nod to Sacha Baron Cohen’s gay Austrian fashionista Bruno, Tucci’s handful of scenes are the funniest in the film.
Of course, the Coens themselves are not averse to using comic-book slapstick or broad-brush characters in their own films, but with a crucial subtlety of tone and texture. In the hands of Hoffman and his team, Gambit has no such redeeming self-awareness, lumbering along like one of those creaky bed-hopping stage farces that used to pack London’s West End in the 1960s and 1970s.
Trite comic clichés about Brits being perpetually embarrassed about sex, social class and manners are not just old news, they are woefully out of date. Never mind Firth’s wardrobe malfunction – everybody in Gambit seems to be wearing the wrong trousers.
Venue: London press screening, October 24
Production companies: Crime Scene Pictures, Michael Lobell Productions
Producers: Mike Lobell, Rob Paris, Adam Ripp
Cast: Colin Firth, Cameron Diaz, Alan Rickman, Tom Courtenay, Stanley Tucci
Director: Michael Hoffman
Screenplay: Ethan and Joel Coen
Cinematography: Florian Ballhaus
Editor: Paul Tothill
Production designer: Stuart Craig
Music: Rolfe Kent
Sales company: Momentum Pictures, CBS Films
Rating TBC, 89 minutes
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