23 April 2010

Retro Review: Dirty Rotten Scoundrels (1988)


Dirty Rotten Scoundrels
1988, 106mins, PG
Director: Frank Oz
Writer (s): Dale Launer, Stanley Shapiro, Paul Henning
Cast includes: Steve Martin, Michael Caine, Glenne Headly, Anton Rodgers, Ian McDiarmid, Dana Ivey
UK Release Date: 30th June 1989

Oh Steve Martin, what went wrong? Martin was once one of the funniest comedians on the planet; but has become increasingly sanitized over the last twenty years, leading to starring roles in poor 21st Century remakes of “Cheaper by the Dozen” and “The Pink Panther”. Alongside Eddie Murphy, Martin can hold the distinction of being the biggest comedic sell out in modern cinema; either that or he completely misplaced his funny bone about 15 years ago. 1988’s “Dirty Rotten Scoundrels” was one of the last great Steve Martin comedies, paired with Michael Caine the actor is in storming form here. Directed by Frank Oz, “Scoundrels” is brilliantly scripted and energetically handled, resulting in a delightful burst of eighties nostalgia.

Lawrence Jamieson (Michael Caine) is a big time conman in a town on the French Riviera. Lawrence has had the rich locals and visitors wrapped around his little finger for years, taking money from them in vast quantities due to the ingenuity of his shams. When a younger (and less polished) competitor called Freddie Benson (Steve Martin) shows up in town, Lawrence takes him under his wing, only for his pupil to breakaway and go solo with no remorse for his mentor. As a result the two men decide the area isn’t big enough for the both of them, a “loser leaves” bet being presented as a consequence. The wager requires the two tricksters to agree on a woman, and the first to extract $50,000 from her is the winner. So when soap queen Janet Colgate (Glenne Headly) rolls up in town, the game is afoot, but getting money from the eager young woman will require dirty rotten deeds of the upmost calibre.

“Dirty Rotten Scoundrels” is a carefree and lovable comedy; a major reason as to why it gels so smoothly is its charming demeanour. The filmmakers never condone or attack the despicably sneaky actions of the lead characters, but rather revel in their dastardly plans with a joyfully cartoonish energy. The screenplay is based on a 1964 endeavour “Bedtime Story”, but “Dirty Rotten Scoundrels” is very much its own film. The performances are deliciously funny, the jokes fresh and spirited and the exotic locations cutely shot by Oz. The movie does provide a somewhat predictable twist (most viewers will likely have it figured by the hour mark), but getting to the finish is a genuine comic blast.

Steve Martin and Michael Caine are both sensationally good in “Dirty Rotten Scoundrels”, and create a dazzling comic chemistry together. It’s a fairly generic “odd couple” set-up, but the pair lathers on oodles of comic expertise and showcases a terrifically fun momentum. Martin in particular is great value as the devious Freddie, managing to stamp his trademark brand of surreal slapstick all over the picture. Both leading figures are highly likable, a miracle given their moustache twirling villainy, and a testament to the quality of both the actors and the script. Glenne Headly holds her own against her male co-stars, but there’s no denying the show belongs to them, and they take pleasure in reminding the audience of just that.

The gags come thick and fast, with most sticking. The highpoint occurs about a third of the way through proceedings, in a selection of scenes in which Martin feigns being Caine’s demented younger brother. Here the tone is berserk, but the film as a whole derives much of its joy from snappy dialogue and more refined bursts of humour. “Dirty Rotten Scoundrels” is a success because it plays to both the strengths of Martin and Caine, allowing them to form an electric dynamic from the familiarity of their individual comfort zones. Martin gets to go crazy and overact with expert relish, leaving Caine to spout incisive dialogue and smarm it up with delectable candour.

The plot is compelling, even though it insists on finishing on an obvious note. My only real problem with “Dirty Rotten Scoundrels” can be traced to its undercooked twist, the screenwriters underestimating the audience’s intelligence at this juncture. However seeing as most of the film treats viewers with such respect and offers them a comedic buffet of true quality, the misfiring climax isn’t hard to forgive. “Dirty Rotten Scoundrels” is a sumptuous eighties diversion; a barrel of laughs covered in professional looking package. It really makes you miss the Steve Martin of old.

A review by Daniel Kelly, 2010


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