Saturday 15 October 2016

Movie Review: Dirty Rotten Scoundrels (1988)

A gleaming comedy, Dirty Rotten Scoundrels enjoys star power and a convivial attitude but also falls into self-inflicted traps of excess.

On the French Riviera, Englishman Lawrence Jamieson (Michael Caine) is a well-established con artist specializing in fooling women into willingly handing over their cash and jewelry. Lawrence pretends to be a suave Prince-in-hiding of a small country under siege by communists, and convinces vacationing lonely rich women to part with their wealth to aid his cause. He is helped in his ruse by local police Inspector Andre (Anton Rodgers).

Lawrence's easy life is disrupted when American con man Freddy Benson (Steve Martin) invades his turf. A low level operator, Freddy scams meals and a few bucks off women with sob stories about a sick grandmother. Lawrence's repeated attempts to bounce Freddy out of town fail. They finally agree on a bet: whoever can first fleece soap baroness Janet Colgate (Glenne Headly) out of $50,000 gets to stay in town. Freddy adopts the identity of a Navy veteran paralyzed due to psychological scars; Lawrence responds by pretending to be psychologist Dr. Shaffhausen, the only man who can cure emotional paralysis. They both play on Janet's emotions, but winning this bet will not be easy for either man.

Directed by Frank Oz, Dirty Rotten Scoundrels is a glossy comedy with a sly attitude, capitalizing on two stars in fine form. With vivid colours capturing the idyllic sun-drenched opulence of the Riviera, the film pops off the screen, never takes itself seriously and offers a steady stream of laughs. The script is witty and contains a healthy dose of one-liners, while Martin offers up his brand of more physical comedy, resulting in a rare combination of smart and crass.

But Dirty Rotten Scoundrels is also flabby and suffers from stretches of tedium. The running time of 1 hour and 50 minutes is a good 15 minutes too long for the material, and Oz shows no ability to end a joke at its peak. Individual scenes carry on longer than necessary, but particularly weak is a stretch where Lawrence convinces Freddy to play the role of idiot young brother to scare off women who are starting to think of seeking commitment. Encouraging Martin's worst childish tendencies, Oz stretches out the joke over several painful scenes long after the point is made. The game of devious one-upmanship between Freddy and Lawrence in pursuit of Janet's money is also stretched too thin, the battle of wits becoming predictable the more unlikely twists it takes.

Both Michael Caine and Steve Martin are good at what they do, but in the head-to-head acting battle, Caine easily comes out on top. He allows less to be more, using an economy of actions and pauses to speak from themselves. Martin is all about over-emoting and over-expressing. Both actors are consistent with their characters, but Caine's comedy comes across as sophisticated and restrained, while Martin is simply churlish and juvenile. In one of her career highlight roles Glenne Headly demonstrates clever comic timing, and proves a worthy match for her more famous co-stars.

Mischievous, frivolous, and lightweight, Dirty Rotten Scoundrels is a fun frolic.

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