The first screenplay by Ethan and Joel Coen that they haven’t directed in almost three decades – since they co-wrote Crimewave with Sam Raimi and let him helm it – Gambit puts paid to the notion that only the Coen Brothers can direct a Coen Brothers script. Still, that’s not to excuse the pair for what is evidently a lukewarm remake of the 1966 Michael Caine-starring con caper, doing its charming cast a huge disservice, entirely a consequence of a script that reads like a first draft, alongside a director who doesn’t seem to know what to do with it.
Colin Firth plays a foppish British art curator named Harry Deane, who decides to exact revenge on his churlish boss, Lord Lionel Shabandar (Alan Rickman), by tricking him into buying a fake Monet painting, with the help of an effervescent if slightly unpredictable Texan rodeo Queen, PJ Puznowski (Cameron Diaz). While director Michael Hoffman (The Last Station) certainly gets at something by playing off Diaz’s Southern, good ‘ol gal against Firth and Rickman’s decidedly more dour, quintessentially British prigs, he’s also too keen to coast on the laurels of his cast – inexorably short-changed as they are – and can do little but battle uphill against the Coens’ aggressively mediocre script.
Granted, there are a few nice flourishes – namely a brief sequence in which monkeys ride dogs, for no apparent reason – but the real reason to see it, if there is any, is the cast. Firth always fills out a suit nicely, and that small subset of people gagging to see Alan Rickman in the near-buff will have their day, but it’s the hilariously-accented Diaz who, despite being almost mute for the first quarter of the film, gets the chance to damn-near run away with the film.
Meanwhile in supporting roles, Tom Courtenay has a few inspired moments as Firth’s velvet-voiced conman-in-arms, and Stanley Tucci is laudably over-the-top as a German art curator. In the end, it turns out that the biggest scenery-chewers – we’re looking at Diaz and Tucci especially – are the ones who seem the most aware that what they’re making really isn’t very good. Above all else, it seems like the actors are having a good time, even if the feeling doesn’t quite transpire through to the audience.
The Coens’ scattershot script, low on both charm and energy, is the most problematic element, giving the talented trio of leads very little to work with. It is as though in trying to stay reverent to the original film’s screwball roots, the Coens have attempted to mine the well-plumbed depths of the genre’s lore, coming up with countless situations in which Firth is summarily humiliated, usually relating to his clothes being despoiled in one way or another. Otherwise, it’s an uninspired slew of rampant animals (a lion shows up, because why not?), dick jokes, race gags, and farts; indeed, The Ladykillers’ vibe is alive and well here, then.
Also, the vague whiff of romance shoe-horned into the final reel doesn’t work at all, though at least it doesn’t go the full, sickening whack. The problem is simply that we don’t care; the muddled narrative keeps the viewer plenty busy trying to make head or tail of it all, while the characters aren’t in the least bit developed beyond breezy caricature.
At the end of the day, though, we need little more proof as to Gambit’s quality than the simple fact that the Coen Brothers chose to pawn their script off on another director rather than film it themselves. Sure, it provides a few light laughs and is inoffensive enough, largely owing to its merciful runtime – scarcely touching 80 minutes without the bookending credits sequences – but a film with such a game cast and keen swagger should bite much, much harder than this.
Gambit is released in UK cinemas October 21st.
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