Gambit is a good old-fashioned caper movie, of the sort that were made in their droves at one time – think Those Magnificent Men In Their Flying Machines, Monte Carlo Or Bust, even The Italian Job! Unsurprisingly, it’s a remake of a 60s Ronald Neame caper movie starring Shirley Maclaine, Michael Caine and Herbert Lom, scripted this time around by those magnificent flying Coen Brothers, directed by Mike Hoffman and featuring the ever reliable talents of Colin Firth, Cameron Diaz and Alan Rickman (proof if ever you need it that two out of three decent actors are British!) To be fair the cast list is studded with fine talents such as Stanley Tucci (whom I loved in Murder One), Tom Courtenay (who I’ve seen on stage in Manchester and who made such a wonderful job of Quartet) and Cloris Leachman (who I remember best saying “Blücher” in Young Frankenstein and panicking the horses!)
But then, is the point of caper movies not that they are incestuous, self-congratulatory affairs that are knowingly over the top, allowing stars making eager reverential nods to one other and send themselves up royally in the process? All very luvvy behaviour, of course, and just the ticket for the lucrative Christmas market. Why else release your movie at the end of November?
The other thing about heist capers is that they go wrong, and if they didn’t there wouldn’t be much of a story to relate. So it is here. The plan to fake one of Monet’s two haystack paintings and flog it to Firth’s abusively egotistical boss (Lord) Lionel Shahbandar (Rickman) – who is an avid collector of impressionist works and is dying to complete his set of haystacks ahead of Japanese rival Takagawa – looks and sounds perfect.
The bait is taken, the fish is hooked, the money exchanged and everything works swimmingly… in the mind of Firth’s Harry Deane – before he chats up Diaz’s Texan cowgirl P J Puznowski to persuade her to participate, y’all. Deane, accompanied by Courtenay’s cluckingly sympathetic forger, Major Wingate, loses the plot and fails to allow for the devious mindset of Shahbandar, who in turn has failed to tell Deane he is being replaced by Tucci’s Zaidenweber, and also falls for the girl (hope you’re keeping up, there will be a short test later!)
What follows is highly cringeworthy at times, though it is at least classy cringing since much of the action takes place at the Savoy Hotel, and much of the rest at a party and Shahbandar’s country home, wherein resides his art collection. In some ways it harks back to the Pink Panther movies, and as such appears quite quaint and dated in his approach – though I suspect that may be deliberate on the part of the Coens.
The finest acting in the movie by far is courtesy of Pip Torrens and Julian Rhind-Tutt as, respectively, desk clerk and concierge of the Savoy – brilliant use of the face and eyes to convey every nuance of superiority and disdain imaginable. Sadly, you could not say the same for Firth or Rickman, who seem to be having a whale of a time hamming up their roles, but then it is a caper, isn’t it?
While Deane recovers his faculties and provides the sting in the movie’s tale (as opposed to the teeth, which are provided by Shahbandar’s security system), the biggest weakness on display is the Coen’s script. This might seem unfair, given that Ethan and Joel have written an inventive, verbally eloquent script, but its failing is in not providing sufficient laughs. Indeed, it goes for slapstick where good verbal jokes with greater subtlety might have packed the greater punch. Nor does Hoffman deliver those other essential elements of a good caper: thrills and tension.
Don’t get me wrong, this is good knockabout family entertainment, plus the occasional naughty word. It’s quite amiable, but could have been so much more, possibly because it’s not ultimately sure what it wants to be. That minor point aside, plenty to enjoy, even if it doesn’t advance the history of cinema one iota. And if you don’t catch it at the cinema, it will doubtless be gracing your TV screen one Christmas in the near future.