Saturday, August 17, 2019

Know Your Limitations

It’s an unavoidable observation about comedies that sometimes the concept of cinema is just a little too incidental. Of course, in certain cases it can be argued the only thing that matters is whether or not a film succeeds at being funny. And it’s not that there’s anything wrong with comedies or that they’re some sort of lesser form but when it comes to writing about them sometimes there’s simply not much to say. It may be insulting to point out that often comedies aren’t meant to be good movies and the history of film calls this out as a lie but it’s still the approach many of them seem to take, especially when a film plays like they shot a lot of footage, went crazy with the improv and assembled it out of the pieces of that, plot be damned, construction be damned, logic be damned. Whether or not it’s a good movie be damned. The recent film THE HUSTLE is a remake of the fondly remembered 1988 Frank Oz comedy DIRTY ROTTEN SCOUNDRELS but this in itself is not a terrible thing especially since that film is also a remake, specifically of the 1964 BEDTIME STORY starring Marlon Brando and David Niven. The plots of the three films are so close that original writers Stanley Shapiro & Paul Henning even get full credit on the scripts of the other two films (THE HUSTLE opening credits lists the two along with DIRTY scripter Dale Launer and the new writer) but on its own BEDTIME STORY isn’t very good at all, acted by leads who are mostly waltzing through their parts and it’s directed like a sitcom of the time which makes sense since that’s what director Ralph Levy mostly did otherwise. It’s an early 60s studio comedy which contains all the bland artificiality that implies with a particularly bad ending so today it doesn’t play as much more than a reminder that those movies back then weren’t all fortunate enough to be directed by the likes of Blake Edwards or Stanley Donen. Coming 24 years later, DIRTY ROTTEN SCOUNDRELS is such an improvement in every possible way that it’s a safe bet it would be regularly named on the list of best remakes if anyone knew or even cared it actually was one.

As for THE HUSTLE, there’s not much to say about that film, certainly not much to write about it, even if it is surprising that roughly 95% of the plot has been retained. It’s simply not very good and maybe the nicest thing I can say about the film is that it makes me want to send a letter to Anne Hathaway saying some of us are getting worried about her. Along with the lack of actual wit is the poor construction to what should be a pretty solid narrative, especially compared with DIRTY ROTTEN SCOUNDRELS which possesses a tangible sense of elegance to its storytelling and through that an undeniable economy in how it’s told. THE HUSTLE merely rushes things and when it does diverge from the other film the reasons don’t feel correctly thought out, seeming to have little awareness of what worked before and why, possibly making changes simply to give more screentime to star Rebel Wilson for no reason other than she was one of the producers. And, this should probably be said, it’s not very funny. But there’s little reason to dwell on that. Better to figure out why a comedy was successful and what can be learned from that since THE HUSTLE certainly didn’t. Sometimes it doesn’t matter that a comedy isn’t a great film. Sometimes you instead get a sense of the care which was put into a film and how much attention was paid in order to make it all come together. Too often we get reminders that the things which allowed certain films to work so well are long in the past. But even in the 80s when DIRTY ROTTEN SCOUNDRELS was made, it was still possible for that to happen.

Wealthy con artist Lawrence Jamieson (Michael Caine) resides in the seaside town of Beaumont sur Mer in the South of France with the Chief of Police as his main ally, spending his time almost effortlessly bilking money from wealthy women traveling through, often in the guise of a deposed prince looking for funds for his freedom fighters. All is well until the arrival of Freddie Benson (Steve Martin), an American who has traveled to the region in search of the finer things and looking for women to fleece himself. After failing in an attempt to get Freddie out of the way, Jamison accepts his presence and instead tries to teach him in the art of his trade. But when their brief partnership ends due to a falling out, Freddie suggests a bet to have them both go after an agreed upon woman and the loser will have to leave town. They settle on visiting American soap heiress Janet Colgate (Glenne Headly) with each man willing to stop at nothing to get her money and prove that they really are the best at the game.

There’s a surprising melancholy tinge to DIRTY ROTTEN SCOUNDRELS mixed in among the laughs, particularly in the way Michael Caine’s Lawrence Jamieson explains to Freddy that in spite of his ambition of becoming an artist he had little actual talent, merely the appreciation for the finer things so life as a con artist was the way he chose to pursue that. In a way, achieving the goal of spending money on beauty and culture served its purpose just as much as being an artist ever would have. In its own way, what he does is an art. Not everyone is qualified to aim so high and sometimes you never know that the other person already has you beat. Released during the Christmas ’88 season when most of the comedy business went to TWINS, the fantasy of SCOUNDRELS (written by Dale Launer and Stanley Shapiro & Paul Henning) is rooted in the old world money of the south of France and the characters of this movie are part of this fantasy, ready to take advantage of the women looking to be a part of all that opulence whatever the cost. BEDTIME STORY was the title of the original so it was told in that fashion but what DIRTY ROTTEN SCOUNDRELS does is make that feeling so matter of fact it comes off as effortless and every laugh seems perfectly natural as if there was no other correct way for certain moments to play.

The films Frank Oz has directed, just going by the funny ones, haven’t always totally succeeded as comedies and a few of them aren’t all that great as films (hot take: BOWFINGER, for example, is funny but a little slapdash). But while DIRTY ROTTEN SCOUNDRELS is as broad as it needs to be at times to get the joke across, never holding back on the stupidity if it’s necessary, the film never forgets to exude a sense of elegance and class to fight against that, to give us a sense of the fine life this con artist lives at the expense of all those others. If the film weren’t so impeccably made this wouldn’t come across at all and Oz intentionally directs his film as an old school Hollywood entertainment, giving each of the three leads big movie star introductions and in filming his actors he always knows where to put the camera to let us observe them playing these roles as big as possible in tandem with each other. There’s a sense of calm to the direction, aided in how the look of the film is pulled off by the great cinematographer Michael Ballhaus (whose other 1988 credits included THE LAST TEMPTATION OF CHRIST and WORKING GIRL) and along with that expert camerawork is a confidence to how the visuals are laid out. Shots gradually reveal what they are as they happen and even the transitions seem to glide perfectly from one scene to the next. The subtlety to the laughs are all played with expert timing; there’s almost no way to explain just why and how Barbara Harris being pushed up against a series of plants as she’s let into what she thinks is the private life of a deposed prince is as funny as it is but when played out the joke makes perfect sense. Just the sight of the two leads sizing each other up in the early scenes wastes no time in showing off the expert rhythms they display together and by the time Caine as Jameson takes on the guise of the very Germanic Dr. Emil Shaffhausen to examine his newest ‘patient’ it’s a beautifully constructed sequence of reveals and blocking with each of the three leads bouncing off each other beautifully. Even the throwaway touches, like the bookmark Freddy keeps in his copy of Mad Magazine, are just the right sort of appropriately ridiculous details that the film pulls off as it glides along.

Through that impeccable plotting the film is always looking for the comic beats that can be brought out within a scene, doing this while being in no rush whatsoever. It pulls off the trick of having almost no real conflict until roughly the 45 minute mark but once it does the developments quietly snowball, one after the other. On the DVD audio commentary Oz, very analytical about his approach, gives lots of credit to Shapiro & Henning for the original structure but seems too modest to say that his film is an improvement over what was already there and even when much of the dialogue is the same it’s often been improved, taking comic beats beyond points where they stopped in the original and pushing those moments in the pursuit of greater payoffs, even down to the way the plot beats of the second half build bit by bit to a final twist which BEDTIME STORY didn’t have. The brief musical interludes also fit in so well with the relaxed yet spirited vibe like when Martin’s Freddy is being trained for this lifestyle, utilizing old standards of the “We’re in the Money” and “Putting on the Ritz” sort via the score by Miles Goodman, playing so close in tone to an actual musical that it’s no real surprise it became one on stage later on. And the French locations that make up the fictitious Beaumont sur Mer offer the perfect storybook quality, just as fitting as the innocence that Glenne Headly’s soap queen projects while the two men squabble over her. Because, really, it’s not like there’s anything at stake here and, as it turns out in the end, even less than we ever realized.

Everyone who has seen DIRTY ROTTEN SCOUNDRELS of course remembers the absurdity of Martin’s guise as Ruprecht holding that trident and his quizzical “Not mother?” will always be funny, I don’t care what you say. Whether it’s the pure physicality of Steve Martin or what Michael Caine does to play against that, sometimes without moving a muscle, not to mention how this may be the only film with a Deny Terrio joke, for crying out loud, so many of the laughs pay off but the quieter moments balance them out whether Caine’s musings or Martin’s indignant claims that men are the weaker sex as the justification for doing what he believes is right by taking their money to give an edge to all the silliness. The sexual politics of the film are largely of another time, I guess the early 60s, and it makes sure we know that most of these snobby women don’t deserve anything less (“You were saying the poor shouldn’t be allowed in museums?” Caine asks one played by SIX FEET UNDER’s Frances Conroy). But just as Martin’s civilian wardrobe is a little 80s to clash with the surroundings, Glenne Headly’s unknowing Janet who believes just about anything anyone tells her is the sort of innocent no one in the Riviera has ever encountered and whose unquestioning goodness seems to be part of the new way of doing things, lulling us into a sense of sweetness and humanity almost without realizing it.

Miles Goodman’s lovely and boisterous score offers some of that as well, heavy on the violin but in addition to lending the film a richer sense of luxury it also contains a wistfulness that develops near the end as if to underscore how impermanent all this fantasy really is. Through his direction, Oz is always looking to underline this feeling, even in the economy of how a farewell at the airport late in the film holds on one character with another reflected in a nearby window and the surprising emotions being felt. But in another beat soon after that holds on Martin and Caine during a certain realization, the shot becomes about how they react as well as who moves and who doesn’t, turning it into a perfect reflection of their chemistry and in a nutshell this moment encapsulates what the film is more than anything. It’s possibly the best directorial work of Frank Oz’s long career, at the very least his most impeccable as well as the one most fully aware of where the jokes should go in order to truly matter.

The film always knows how much it’s about the two leads in the frame together facing off and even one of the slyest directorial moments has them gradually coming closer to camera during a tense moment, daring the other to go one step further. It’s safe to say this remains one of my favorite films of both of them; Steve Martin is more of a broad comic figure in his performance, obviously, taking his various characterizations as far as they can go particularly during the unspeakable insanity of Ruprecht but he always finds the right joke in moments like his desperation to remember someone’s name but also the way everything about his jittery energy throughout gets on people’s nerves. And it makes sense up against the fully fleshed out portrayal Michael Caine brings to his part beginning from the simple physicality of him turning around into close-up but particularly displayed through his timing in the guise of the officious Doctor Emil Schaffhausen. Even what Caine does with his hands can be fascinating to watch in this film and he cuts through every line of his dialogue with just enough of an edge to remind us of how much of an act the elegance is. The great and sadly underappreciated Glenne Headly is perfectly matched with the two of them in the way Janet Colgate seems to totally accept every ludicrous thing she’s told and the total sense of goodness it seems to bring out in her, with even the mere sight of her walking becoming a key part of that characterization. It’s very much a three person show but there’s also the way Barbara Harris as Fanny Eubanks of Omaha is so wide eyed in believing everything she’s told, Anton Rodgers (who later played a French chief of police again in Blake Edwards’ SON OF THE PINK PANTHER) bouncing off Caine nicely and in particular Ian McDiarmid aka Senator Palpatine as Jamison’s butler Arthur who amusingly gets extremely little dialogue but slaughters a few of the lines that he does get.

A film becomes a product of its time. This is unavoidable. Both BEDTIME STORY and THE HUSTLE are products of their time at least in the way of how mediocre they both are (although discovering what Brando does in the Ruprecht scenes makes a look at that film worth it). And as much as there’s nothing wrong with doing this particular plot with women in the lead roles maybe this is a case where keeping the final twist just seems wrong, in a thematic way or maybe just for comedy and the way the new film handles it simply gives the impression that it wasn’t very well thought out making the whole thing feel like a step backwards. Even comedies need to feel like there was some thought behind them, after all. In his memoir “The Elephant to Hollywood”, Michael Caine has nothing but fond things to say about filming DIRTY ROTTEN SCOUNDRELS in the south of France (you can hardly blame him) along with calling it one of his favorite films as well as the funniest. It’s the epitome of a film that you think of fondly years later, remembering both the jokes as well as the spirit of the whole thing, playing as light as it should but with just enough depth to remind us of that dream of jetting off to the south of France in the summertime. You still need those dreams while stuck in the real world and that’s the fantasy DIRTY ROTTEN SCOUNDRELS reminds you of. And it’s funny. That matters too.

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