Sunday, March 20, 2011

“To be with another woman, that is French. To be caught, that is American.”

1988 brought forth a most curious combination of Michael Caine, Steve Martin and Frank Oz. Dirty Rotten Scoundrels is the tale of two conmen, an American and an Englishman, who get into what can only be called a turf war over a small town in the French Riviera where they are working their cons.

Well, the plot is fairly simple. Lawrence Jamieson (Michael Caine) is a classy, urbane con man operating out of the Beaumont sur Mer who runs into the crass, blunt Freddy Benson (Steve Martin) an American con man working his way across Europe. Some time later, Benson arrives in Jamieson’s territory and the two social parasites end up bumping into each other constantly. At first Jamieson tries to drive Benson away by “training” him, but the American is too persistent to let a little lost dignity drive him off. A contest is agreed to. The first one to con $50,000 dollars out of a rich young woman wins and the loser has to leave town. The contest heats up when the wealthy Janet Colgate (Glenne Headly) arrives in town and both conmen begin working on her. Notable side characters include the very clued-in Inspector Andre (Anton Rodgers) and Jamieson’s servant Arthur (played by Ian “Emperor Palpatine” McDiarmid)

Directed by Frank Oz, the film has a steady hand behind it. The scenery is pleasant, bright and sunny, which goes a long way to making the conmen much more likable than professional liars and social predators normally are.

Written by Dale Launer and Stanley Shapiro & Paul Henning (and basically a loose remake of 1964’s Bedtime Story), the story ambles around at an amiable clip, though the first half (before the bet is made) kind of wanders a bit too far afield. Things pick up quickly when the conmen officially square off against each other. The film has its fair share of great comedic scenes (one of the real standouts being the “Ruprecht” bit), but be aware that this isn’t a knee-slapper. The comedy is more subtle, steadily building and building towards absurdity. The real charm of the movie is watching Caine & Martin play off of each other.

Original music by Miles Goodman, the soundtrack is entirely suitable to the task of a light, breezy comedy about conmen. Its somewhat reminiscent of Elmer Bernstein’s comedy scores.

Dirty Rotten Scoundrels is a good time. Steve Martin was unstoppable in the 1980s and its always a joy watching Michael Caine chew the scenery. Definitely recommended.

Odd sound effects not actually in the movie, thankfully.

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