The script for this remake of Ronald Neame’s 1966 caper had been doing the rounds since the late ‘90s. The estimable Coen Brothers took on script duties, looking for some rewrite work (never intending to direct). Despite the pedigree of most projects their names are attached to, it remained in Development Hell for another fifteen years. Which probably wasn’t a good sign. The finished article bears testament to this, but I don’t really think the script is to blame. But it does lead me to suspect that the only people who can make a good movie out of a Coen Brothers script are the Coen Brothers themselves.
Surely a good script is a good script, though? Yet throughout Gambit, I could hear their dialogue and recognise their plotting while fully aware that very little of it was hitting the mark. Everyone appears to be trying too hard. Pushing the comedy this way ultimately kills the comedy. Michael Hoffman is unable to bring the rhythms the Coens bring to their films, both in terms of pacing scenes (and by extension across the film as a whole) and crafting the performances of their actors. You can see that approach even in their most-maligned pictures, Ladykillers and Intolerable Cruelty. It’s the latter I imagine this bearing most resemblance to on paper; intentionally broad but with a zestful delivery.
Hoffman’s directorial career has been nothing if not erratic, and you’d be hard-pressed to claim an out-and-out artistic and box office success (1991’s Soapdish is probably closest). He follows course here; the film looks quite nice, but the wink-wink artifice never engages with the result that it quickly becomes rather tiresome.
The Coens lift the outline of the first 15 minutes from the original (easily the most memorable and bizarre part of a likeable but middling movie), and a few of the names including that of the “villain” (Alan Rickman’s Shahbandar sounds like a Coen Brothers made-up name, so that figures). And the reasoning for employing the female lead in the con is as farfetched as in the 1966 version. But, that aside, they have come up with a completely new caper. Harry Deane (Colin Firth) seeks revenge on his boss by selling him a fake Monet (producer by forger Tom Courtenay – with Quartet this is the second film I’ve seen him in this week) and enlists Cameron Diaz’s rodeo queen to carry out his plan.
Colin Firth is very good in a certain kind of role, but he lacks the natural charisma of Michael Caine’s Dean (for some reason he’s borrowed his glasses, though). Firth should be mugging away like George Clooney does for the Coen Brothers if this is to stand any chance of working. But he plays Harry Dean very straight, very exasperated, and slightly dull. Which drains away the energy. Meanwhile, Cameron Diaz tries on a Texan accent and Alan Rickman embraces his uncouth side to sometimes amusing effect.
Fitfully, this has its moments (a bit of bedroom farce, some extended innuendo concerning Firth’s “major“). More frequently, Hoffman settles for weak slapstick (Firth keeps getting punched, loses his trousers, is attacked by a lion) and fart jokes. Both of which may be readily found in the two Coens movies I’ve mentioned, but it’s all in the execution.