It’s probably safe to say that the good, old-fashioned farce is now as dead as vaudeville, with its highly-strung characters, broadly comic situations and cocked-eyebrow hijinks consigned to the memory of decades past.
Yet here’s Gambit, stumbling forth out of the crowd of awards contenders with nothing but a stiff upper lip and the promise of a campy caper. It’s a remake of a Michael Caine-Shirley MacLaine comedy vehicle from the 1960s that seems to have been willed into life against all odds. After years in development limbo, with multiple cast changes, script rewrites and various directors attached to the project, we’re now presented with 90 minutes of frothy comedy helmed by Michael Hoffman (whose last film, the Leo Tolstoy biopic The Last Station, was neither frothy nor a comedy) and headed up by an all-star ensemble featuring Colin Firth, Cameron Diaz, Alan Rickman, Stanley Tucci and Tom Courtenay.
Firth leads as Harry Deane, a hapless art curator who hatches a plan to swindle his boss, the horrendously rich media magnate Lord Lionel Shabandar (Rickman), out of millions by forging a rare Monet painting and pretending it’s been found in the trailer-park home of a bolshy Texas rodeo champion, PJ Puznowski (Cameron Diaz). He has everything worked out, but of course reality proves to be trickier than imagined. Not only does PJ start to fall for Lionel’s charms, but Deane’s nemesis, the Eurotrash art expert Zaidenweber (Tucci) is brought in to assess the new discovery. And then there’s the problem of Lionel’s pet lion…
The script, we’re reminded at every opportunity, is penned by the Coen Brothers, but this is not the genre-bending Coens of Blood Simple or Fargo, it’s the off-form, early 2000s Coens who wrote Intolerable Cruelty and their remake of the Ealing comedy The Ladykillers. Nevertheless, theirs was merely one of many drafts that went into the making of Gambit, and this chaotic creative process is evident throughout.
While the narrative lurches forward with momentum and confidence, there’s barely anything to hang onto as the plot is arbitrarily put into action. The screenplay is stuffed full of ideas, gags and developments, but none hit the mark, and the jokes themselves grab for every low-hanging fruit in the book – from public nudity to breaking wind, from weird foreign accents to stubborn stains in embarrassing areas.
As a comedy, it’s undeniably old-fashioned, but while the plot has completely changed from the 60s original (in which Deane was a cat burglar), 2012’s Gambit injects little into the familiar formula. Instead it contorts 21st century London, and the talents of some brilliant contemporary actors, into the awkward shape of a bygone genre. For all his dapper charm, Colin Firth isn’t Peter Sellers, and there are few actors other than Sellers who can make a trouserless folly around the Savoy – the film’s comic centrepiece – into more than a sorry excuse for entertainment.
Rickman fares better; Lord Lionel may be an awkward mishmash of Alan Sugar, Rupert Murdoch and Donald Trump, but the actor croaks his way through the film with aplomb, impressively staking his claim to replace Albert Finney and Michael Gambon as the go-to glowering, jowly English gent.
True, the farce may live on in cringe-comedy staples like The Office and Curb Your Enthusiasm, but both Ricky Gervais and Larry David have a more cynical sense of humour when compared the broad silliness of the genre’s 60s heyday, where dopey protagonists would find themselves in all sorts of physically-compromising situations.
Here, the Coens and Hoffman have clearly identified some of the qualities of this forgotten formula – even the animated opening titles and the score recall the iconic credits and Henry Mancini’s soundtrack for The Pink Panther – but their approach is best defined by Deane’s reading of Monet’s technique: ‘a light ground and a limited palette’.
No, there’s no avoiding the truth. The farce is – for now, at least – dead, and it’s very unlikely that uninspired homages like Gambit will revive it.
Gambit is out in UK cinemas now.
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