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Gambit (2014)
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by Jay Seaver

"Nothing ventured, opportunity lost."
1 stars

It's a horrible thing when a caper movie doesn't come off. The great ones are casual and precise in a way that seems to come as much from alchemy as chemistry, and when that doesn't happen, it seems as though all the necessary ingredients are there but just don't come together at all.

Harry Deane (Colin Firth) has a plan - an expert on impressionist art working for the Shabandar Media Group and responsible for curating its egotistic head's art collection in particular, he has concocted a backstory by which he can sell Lionel Shabandar (Alan Rickman) a Monet forged by his friend Wingate (Tom Courtenay). Convincing Shabandar of the picture's provenance will involve American cowgirl PJ Puznowski (Cameron Diaz), who is naturally unpredictable, but another hitch is added to the mix when Shabandar plans to replace Harry with a new curator in the form of Martin Zaidenweber (Stanley Tucci).

The screenplay for this version of Gambit is by Joel & Ethan Coen, and there's a recognizable oddball sensibility to it; it is full of people who are not nearly as smart as they think they are. And yet, there seems to be a great deal missing that no amount of style is going to make up for. For instance, a great sting; even without having seen the 1966 original, what passes for a twist is utterly predictable. The plot holes on the way there are fairly huge, too; while the lack of high-tech art authentication may be excused by the characters being eccentric, a single security camera would have foiled the plot twice (including in one astonishingly pointless, runtime-padding sequence), and "yeah, but there wasn't one" isn't really a valid excuse here - the audience has pointedly been alerted to the possibility, so the plan needs to take it into account or be found wanting.

The even bigger omission, though, is not so much the bits of story needed to get from point A to point B, but the ones that make it seem natural, surprising, and exciting. Deane asserts that Shabandar is a monstrous boss who deserves to be ripped off, but he seems a rather conventional egomaniac most of the time, with Alan Rickman never giving him the extra cruel edge that would have viewers rooting for the character being crushed. Similarly, the plot starts to move on a "Harry is jealous of PJ" line, but why should it? There's no particular reason to assume that sort of claim, and the chemistry between Firth and Diaz isn't such that it becomes self-evident.

The common element in both cases is Colin Firth, and the main problem might be that he and director Michael Hoffman don't push things far enough. He's playing the stammering, awkward fellow when the story might work better with an utterly delusional idiot, or a man so obviously capable and wronged that a successful con would be justice. With neither being the case, even the slapstick he's asked to engage in often falls flat. Rickman never seems fully unleashed as the Shabandar; a voice that should drip acid does little more than bluster. Cameron Diaz at least gets to play big as a broad Texas cowgirl, making all the corn in her character work for her.

Meanwhile, Tom Courtenay and Cloris Leachman are badly underused, the latter in what is little more than a cameo. That the filmmakers can barely find Leachman something funny to do is sad, really, but indicative of how often the attempts at broad farce fail here It's almost painful to see a string of rapid-fire innuendos which should by rights have the audience missing half from laughter just die, for instance, and Diaz is the only one out of several who manages to wrestle her caricature into something that works for her.

Heck, even the animated opening credits fall flat, and those things are usually fun! Maybe that should be taken as an early warning - if the filmmakers could make that pop, the rest of the movie is going to have its problems, too.

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originally posted: 12/03/12 12:35:03
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  25-Apr-2014 (PG-13)
  DVD: 27-May-2014

  21-Nov-2012 (12A)


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