Saturday, December 7, 2019

Movie Reviews: Dirty Rotten Scoundrels

Dirty Rotten Scoundrels
Directed by Frank Oz
This older film (released in 1988) is actually a remake of a sixties film. It is a comedy about the misadventures of con artists. As is the case in many such movies, the con artists are shown to be, if not exactly decent people, at least people who have some standards.

It makes it ever so much easier to identify with people, who, if they don't exactly live up to the movie's title, are still people who can be trusted to always put their self-interest above just about anything else. The film is a comedy but thankfully lacks the gross out sleaze that would shortly become quite common in such films. 

I think this would have been aimed at an adult and/or slightly more sophisticated audience. No one has sex with a pie. There are a few routines when Steve Martin gets close to going over the top but ultimately doesn't. I wouldn't say this was continuously drop dead funny. I wasn't rolling on the floor laughing when I rewatched it. But I did chuckle and smile quite often while viewing. And there were more than a few belly laughs. 

The film proves that a writer or director can intelligently challenge and often subvert viewer expectations without coming across as political, didactic, or hostile, something I think many modern film makers could stand to learn how to do again.

Lawrence Jamieson (Michael Caine) is a cool, calm and collected British con artist who lives on an estate in the French Riviera. He doesn't like to be called Larry. It's Lawrence if you please. Lawrence views the French Riviera as his stomping grounds. A suave sophisticated man of a certain age, Lawrence specializes in fleecing often morally degenerate rich widows or spinster heiresses of their money. 

Even better (worse) Lawrence does it in such a way that the women don't even think they've been robbed. Lawrence is a smooth debonair old school type of guy. 

Whether he's portraying himself as the exiled ruler of a country struggling to be free or an older man down on his luck,  Lawrence's charm, grace, and seeming reluctance to accept money has made him a very wealthy man with a massive home and large collections of books, art, and wine. Lawrence also has an understanding with the town's police chief.  

As Lawrence explains, it took him years to perfect his craft and find just the right place to reside. Lawrence may not be a nice man, but he never steals what a woman can't afford or from a woman who is truly good. 

So when Lawrence runs across a poorer con artist with fewer scruples and less patience, Freddy Benson (Steve Martin), Lawrence does his best to convince and trick Freddy into finding another town to inhabit. Benson's big scam is get lunch money or train tickets from women. If Freddy can get you to give him two tens for a five, he thinks he's had a great day. Freddy is far less subtle and much poorer than Lawrence, but all the same a worried Lawrence doesn't want to share his town or anything else with Freddy, the brash stereotypical ugly American.

Unfortunately for Lawrence, Freddy meets one of Lawrence's former marks and realizes that Lawrence is just as corrupt as he, only far more successful. Freddy blackmails Lawrence into training him for the big leagues. 

The duo works on a few scams together. But Freddy and Lawrence are just too different. They agree that the town isn't big enough for the both of them.  They make a wager. The first man to obtain $50,000 from the newly arrived young American heiress Janet Colgate (Glenne Headly) gets to stay in town. The other must leave. Both men pull out all the stops to win the bet, alternating between deadly rivals and villainous best friends. The fun begins. 

The film shifts perspectives effortlessly. Martin channels a lot of his "wild and crazy guy" standup routine. It works very well in this context. 

Both men have to create new gambits on the fly as they constantly interfere with each other's plans. The viewer will enjoy the gags, visual puns and routine surprises. Headly more than held her own with Martin and Caine.  Though Martin does a lot of physical humor he's just as adept at humor via his dialogue and facial expressions. This is an all around fun light hearted movie.
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