Of all the genres to try and pull off, the romantic caper flick — think “To Catch A Thief,” or “Charade,” or even “Ocean’s Eleven” — is one of the trickiest. For such a film to work out, it’s got to be as light as a feather and feel entirely effortless, and all too many films aiming to hit that sweet spot end up feel entirely effort-ful. But if anyone feels like they might be suited to that sort of thing, it would be the Coen Brothers, who penned the script for the remake of a minor classic of the genre, the 1966 Michael Caine/Shirley MacLaine film “Gambit.” Have they pulled off?
Well, while it’s not quite fair to make the comparison, given that the film’s directed by Michael Hoffman (“Soapdish,” “The Last Station“) rather than Joel or Ethan, but let’s just say that the 2012 edition of “Gambit” makes “Intolerable Cruelty” and “The Ladykillers” look like “Miller’s Crossing.” Clunky, strained and painful where it should be seamless, inspired and pleasurable, it’s a pretty damp squib by any standards.
We begin in Texas as Harry Dean (Colin Firth), an art history expert, heads to an appointment with his friend Major Wingate (Tom Courtenay). Harry curates the private collection of media mogul Lionel Shahbandar (Alan Rickman), but fed up with his bullying boss, he’s out to make a fast buck by using gifted forger Major Wingate to create a fake version of Monet’s “Haystacks At Dusk,” which Shahbandar is obsessed with. But in order to pull off the scam, he needs the help of Texas rodeo rider PJ Puznowski (Cameron Diaz).
Convinced by the promise of a six-figure sum, Puznowski flies to London. But what should be a simple scheme is quickly complicated, both by the arrival of a rival art expert, Martin Zaidenweber (Stanley Tucci), and by Shahbandar taking a fancy to Ms. Puznowski. Will she and Dean be able to pull off the con when it comes down to it? And if they are, will they still be speaking to each other by the end?
The Coens have been open about the script principally being a paycheck job, commissioned around a decade ago, but even if they hadn’t said as much, one could probably have guessed. The pair retain sole screenplay credit, but beyond the enjoyably ridiculous character names, there’s little here that feels like pure Coen. Curiously structured, with flashbacks and fantasy sequences seemingly randomly scattered about and characters with quirk for the sake for the quirk (Shahbandar is a nudist, for instance), it’s closer to a sort of 1960s period farce than it really is to anything that the pair have written before.
So it’s not really a Coen Brothers movie. But is it a good movie? Definitively, no. Going back to what we said at the beginning, there’s no sense of ease with the picture. From the “Pink Panther“-style opening credits that appear to have been created with Flash, Hoffman’s style feels like it’s straining a little too hard to be fun, with the result that no one on screen or in the audience is having any. The middle act, the most immediately farcical, is perhaps the most effective, but even the laughs come few and far between. And for a film that isn’t concerned with making you do anything but laugh, that’s pretty much fatal.
Of the cast, only Firth comes off well. Hassled and self-deluded, the actor continues a run of strong performances by showing a surprising capacity for physical comedy. He’s one of those people who seems to just have a knack for it, and is able to do a certain amount to wring laughs out of very thin material. Courtenay brings his usual dignity to proceedings, but virtually disappears from the film’s second half, while Rickman plays Alan Rickman with slightly less gusto than usual, and we actually forgot that Stanley Tucci was in the film until we came back to do a second draft of this review.
Completely adrift in the middle is Diaz. Given nothing to play but the broadest Texan caricature possible, Diaz compensates by going five times as big as anyone else, like Anne Hathaway realizing that James Franco had come to the Oscars baked. It’s just harmless (and mercifully, short) enough that it’s difficult to truly hate. But it’s even harder to come anywhere near liking it. For all its desire to become a breezy, enjoyable 90 minutes at the movies, it ends up feeling like a chore. [D]
“Gambit” opens in the U.K. on November 21st and in the U.S. in 2013.