Colin Firth assumes Michael Caine’s role in an unnecessary remake of 1966’s unloved art forgery caper that fell flat next to Peter O’Toole’s How to Steal a Million then, and which falls equally flat now.
Firth is Harry Deane, a put-upon art expert who curates the private collection of vulgar multi-millionaire and ‘degenerate nudist’ Lionel Shahbandar (Alan Rickman). Firth has reached the end of his tether and plans to exploit Shahbandar’s uncontrollable desire to lord it over his hated Japanese rival by buying the second long-lost painting in a matching set of Monets; having outbid said rival for the first painting a decade before. Tom Courtenay’s Major Wingate provides the forged Monet, while the spurious provenance comes from Texan rodeo-rider PJ Puznowksi (Cameron Diaz). Puznowki’s grandfather stormed art-laden Nazi bunkers, and Deane is convinced this will hook Shahbandar into believing that Gramps Puznowki may have liberated a Monet back to Texas. All Deane has to do then is authenticate the forgery and 12 million pounds is his… But cons are never that simple, hilarity ensues.
Regrettably hilarity does not ensue, at quite some length. For reasons passing understanding the movie opens with a truncated version of how Deane wishes the movie to play out; which is very disorienting. First you think that the plan has gone very well, and that it’s going to hit a snag after the original caper. Then you realise that was a dream sequence, and so when you find that plan dragging on forever in real time later you’re needlessly impatient; because you’ve seen how fast it can go. The actors are stranded trying to mug laughs out of a weak script. Diaz goofs around like she’s back in 1998, Rickman squeezes some smiles from being comically obnoxious, Firth does an uptight Englishman without flexing his acting muscles, and the venerable Tom Courtenay (who provides oddly sporadic voiceover) is entirely underused.
The Coen Brothers screenplay undoubtedly attracted these actors, and there are numerous small touches that scream Coens such as Shahbandar’s eccentric security system and his nudism, garrulous and seemingly idiotic Japanese businessmen, Stanley Tucci’s demented big entrance, and the neighbour who wordlessly punches Deane in the nose in several scenes (a particularly unfunny but typical touch). But this is a film set in England with predominantly English characters which appears to have been bolted together entirely from Hollywood clichés about England and Englishness. Constantly inserting the words sod, bugger, and bollocks into dialogue does not make it instantly authentically English, guv’nor… This film surely hurts the Coens’ reputation as it is a laugh-free zone in which they only script one mildly amusing sequence; in which Firth, Diaz and Rickman engage in some extremely old-fashioned farce involving missing trousers and endless room-swapping at a swanky hotel.
Gambit was a film that should only have been remade by Steven Soderbergh. Avoid.