Directed by Michael Hoffman
Screenplay by Ethan Coen and Joel Coen
Harry Deane … Colin Firth
P.J. Puznowski … Cameron Diaz
Lionel Shahbandar … Alan Rickman
Major Wingate … Tom Courtenay
Martin Zaidenweber … Stanley Tucci
Harry (Colin Firth) and P.J. (Cameron Diaz) arrive at the Savoy Hotel.
Here we have a dream team. Firth and Diaz are as major star as you can get as the central couple, add a Coen Brothers screenplay, a well-loved original film (1966 with Michael Caine and Shirley Maclaine), then Alan Rickman as the villain, Tom Courtenay as the sidekick and the (great) Stanley Tucci in a cameo.
Colin Firth, the art expert who’s only in it for the Monet / Money.
No plot spoilers here, and I couldn’t remember the original clearly enough, so the double twist essential to such films worked. Firth plays the (seemingly) inept British chap bent on an art con trick. Diaz is the attractive Texas rodeo rider enlisted to help in his plan. Courtenay is the forger and sidekick, and Rickman the bullying millionaire art collector. Tucci is a German rival art critic.
And the result is … quite amusing. It’s not especially funny, and the biggest laugh in the cinema was a fart joke, perhaps because it was so unexpected in a comedy that refreshingly and completely avoids crudity or even bad language. By quite amusing, I mean I will watch it again, but after shelling out the £7 a head on a cold dank evening, I’ll miss its first DVD release, but pick it up around next Christmas when there are piles in the £3 bin.
With such a cast, I ask myself why it fell flat … only slightly flat, rather than flat on its face. I liked the gentleness of the comedy. I loved the nod to the Pink Panther series in the excellent title cartoon sequence (but the music wasn’t in the same league as Mancini’s theme). I liked Cameron Diaz without crudity (for a change). It’s short … just under 90 minutes, which is right for light comedy.
It lacked pace. I don’t mean I want something frenetic and a laugh a minute, but the heavy use of Tom Courtenay’s voice over narration early on slows it up and puts the action at a remove. I thought both Diaz’s Texan accent and Tucci’s German accent sounded resoundingly fake. It’s the only film I’ve seen with Stanley Tucci where I thought he wasn’t very good.
Stanley Tucci as the German art expert. Fake moustache; fake accent
Firth is appealing, and maintains the mild, gentle, inept humour well enough. They go for the sympathy he invokes in the viewer, which is his natural ability. Diaz is a natural comedienne, but she is beginning to lack the fresh appeal of (say) Emily Blunt in Wild Target, just as Firth lacks the comic edge that Bill Nighy had in the same film. The two central characters lack chemistry, but then no romance is written in, so that affects it. Also, while we sympathize with the hapless Harry character, in the end he turns out to be calculating, though in his own way, honourable. He could have made twice as much money. He might be jealous of Rickman’s millionaire art collector getting closer to Diaz’s Texan PJ, but he never makes a play for her. I don’t think Diaz’s script helped. A comic Texan ingenue is a classic comedy character. I was pleased it was largely ‘smart quip free’ but you must be able to find funnier lines for her. Rickman is on good form as the villain, as you’d expect, but then he always is. An amusing touch is his plan for media domination in Asia. Anyone for Sky?
Alan Rickman as the media millionaire / art collector
Where the film comes to life are the sequences in the Savoy Hotel. The two actors we thought outstandingly funny, the funniest in the film, were the two snooty reception clerks at the Savoy. They were wonderful, and I recognized one immediately, but their names are not on the full IMDB list for the film. (SEE BELOW: They are Julian Rhind-Tutt and Pip Torrens). The script could have been done with just one actor, but their interactive glances are so good. All the best bits are in the hotel, with Firth having lost his trousers, even if, like every other comedy ever, a couple of the very funniest moments were revealed in the trailers, which I’d seen about five times. There’s a fifteen minute run in the middle where you think, ‘slow start, but it’s taking off now …’ but then it slows again.
The Savoy reception clerks: the funniest characters in the film
Part of the plot is that the group of Japanese media executives are playing up to comic stereotypes as a deliberate ploy, and this is revealed soon by the chatter shown in subtitles … but nevertheless a racist portrayal is still a racist portrayal. The test is would I have felt comfortable sitting with Japanese friends? Answer: definitely no. The amusing bits are Rickman’s bored reactions as they go through the long list of specialist TV channels they have. One is for watching killer whales eat people.
The issue is the same as films like Horrible Bosses. The major comedy successes arrive out of left field, catching everyone by surprise: The 40 Year Old Virgin, Bridesmaids, Wild Target too. When you get the best writers, the dream cast and a proven script, it often lacks that edginess that great (new) comedy has. Are the actors consciously slumming, or coasting? I never got the impression that any were breaking sweat. It’s a film about a forgery. Given the normal high quality of its writers, two separate critics suggested the screenplay must be a forgery. Two stars would be cruel. It’s NOT as bad as some gleefully negative reviews have suggested, just a tad ‘mild’. I applaud the attempt to do an old fashioned comedy which you could watch with kids. Three? A touch generous as ‘lacklustre’ is a word that springs to mind, but I’ll go for three.
One I noticed is the Monet on the collector’s wall hung on two brass two-pin picture hooks from the local store. Having worked in an art museum as a student, even then, anything of any value had much more substantial underpinnings, and also even then, they were wired and alarmed. Still that’s necessary. The other flaw around this point is Harry checking for cameras before the plot twist takes place. He would have to have known it was camera free before he planned it … though as the art curator, perhaps he knew .