The Coen Brothers’ script for Gambit had been floating around Hollywood for about ten years before it went into production. That’s roughly how long it took Christopher Nolan to write his terrific mind bending heist movie Inception. If the Coen Brothers had decided to spend those ten years rewriting it, Gambit would still probably be filled with jokes that feel incredibly forced. It’s flat, and profoundly unfunny.
But let’s be fair for a moment. It is a comedy crime caper, which is a sub-genre that is almost impossible to get right. It either goes really well, in the case of films like The Pink Panther (the original, obviously), or it can go totally wrong like Ocean’s Thirteen. It’s a tricky balancing act between regular gags, an intelligent crime at its heart, and a series of complications that have to be more farcical than the last. It’s enough to even send Blake Edwards crazy. Most films tend to hit one of two of these and fail on the third (usually the comedy). But Gambit fails on all three counts.
Harry Deane (Colin Firth) is a British art curator, struggling to cope with his abusive tycoon boss Lionel Shahbandar (Alan Rickman), who also happens to be a nudist. Deane decides to get some sweet revenge against Shahbandar by conning him into buying a fake Monet painting. However, in order to make his plan work, he has to enlist the help of PJ Puznowski (Cameron Diaz), a Texas rodeo queen.
This set-up sounds great, and it worked very well for the original film starring Michael Caine. But this remake fails to make the initial sparkle of the premise work. Take Colin Firth in the lead role. He starts out very well, emulating the original Michael Caine performance, glasses and all. But slowly he moves to the more traditional ground of a repressed, nervous Brit. Alongside him is Cameron Diaz, who is short changed by the script. We know from her comedic experience that she can do great things. She deserves better. Plus, it’s time it stopped being a requirement that she strips to sexy lingerie during every film.
The only bright spark really is Alan Rickman. His nudist scenes do irritate the nerves a little, but he’s very convincing as a tight-fisted overbearing tycoon. He genuinely has Rupert Murdoch written all over him. He’s the main source of laughs during the films only funny scene when Firth’s Deane breaks an office chair, and is forced to sit on it while he slides across the room. It’s Rickman’s reaction that works really well in that instance.
This of course doesn’t change the fact that the Coen Brothers’ script is devastatingly poor. Apart from the occasional flourishes of eccentric humour, you’d think it was written by somebody else if their names weren’t plastered all over the posters. For the most part, Gambit skips over the actual crime set-up and moves along straight into the heist. It becomes clear later on that this is to avoid giving away any third act surprises (at least that’s the intention), but it just stinks of laziness.
This is no more evident than during the long sequence involving Colin Firth losing his trousers. It’s a joke that goes on for a crazily long time, to such an extent that it’s actually made a plot point. And apart from the aforementioned chair gag, the rest of the film relies way too heavily on toilet and fart jokes. If that’s what we wanted we’d watch a Farrelly Brothers film. It certainly doesn’t help much that the director Michael Hoffman likes the clumsy slapstick scenes, but can’t find humour in any of them.
Gambit is a film that feels like it’s being forced upon us, which can only be down to mismanagement on Hoffman’s part. If he had allowed the cast to run with the script a little more they may have been able to squeeze out just a few more laughs. During the ten year wait for this film, both Jennifer Aniston and Ben Kingsley were connected with the project before they both pulled out. If they see the end result, they’ll be breathing a sigh of relief. Colin Firth, Cameron Diaz, Alan Rickman, and the Coen Brothers all in one film. It should be sublime. Instead, it’s painfully disappointing.
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