6 March 2002 | jhclues
Winning Comedy from the Land of Oz
Director Frank Oz landed the dream team from comedic heaven when Steve Martin and Michael Caine signed on to star in this hilarious comedy of manners and mannerisms, `Dirty Rotten Scoundrels,' a film that manages to be entertaining without being offensive in any way, and features some terrific performances and-- filmed on location in the French Riviera-- some beautiful cinematography by Michael Ballhaus. Made in 1988, this film not only holds up well, but seems so refreshing after a decade of `American Pies' and other such fare featuring one witless, forgettable `talent' after another. It's a reminder that true comedy can have sophistication without necessarily being sophisticated, and that real humor is timeless. This is stuff that was good when it was made, is even better today, and will have you laughing even harder at it twenty, thirty or fifty years from now.
Freddy Benson (Martin) is a small time American con man/aspiring gigolo traveling abroad with his sights set on the Riviera, specifically Beaumont Sur Mer, which he understands is easy pickings for a talent such as his. Why, on the train into town alone, he bilks a compassionate young woman out of dinner and twenty dollars, using the old I'm-saving-up-for-my-dear-old-grandmother's-operation ploy. On that same train, however, observing Freddy's operation from across the aisle, is Lawrence Jamieson (Caine), a big time con artist/gigolo, who as it happens, lives in Beaumont Sur Mer. And instantly, Jamieson looks upon Freddy with disdain; after all, this is a man who has perfected the art of bilking rich young women for sums that fall into five and six digits by successfully masquerading as a Prince or some such Nobility, who needs vast sums of money in order to `save' his country from the Communists, an unspecified opposition, or whatever else will work. Furthermore, it's taken a lot of time and effort to get to where he's at, and he's not about to let the unseemly Freddy Benson cut into his act.
So with the help of his associate ( a local policeman), Inspector Andre (Anton Rodgers), Jamieson sets out to `discourage' Freddy from attempting to get a foothold in Beaumont Sur Mer. But Freddy, it turns out, may not be the unwitting amateur Jamieson presumed him to be-- Andre has just received word that an elusive con artist has arrived in the area; a professional known only as `The Jackal.' And so, the game is afoot; a game that will ultimately bring Jamieson and Freddy closer together, and involve them with a wealthy American named Janet Colgate (Glenne Headly), who will become the focus of more than just a little attention before it's all over. it becomes a contest between the suave Lawrence Jamieson and the unruly Freddy Benson. And the winner? Well, by the end it's clear who the real winner is here-- and without a doubt, it's the audience.
Oz must have had a good time making this movie, because he had all the tools available to him from the best of both worlds. There's the broad, physical humor employed and perfectly delivered by Martin, and the subtle, studied approach that Caine uses. Their styles contrast wonderfully, and Oz certainly makes the most of it. He's put together some scenes that are beyond hilarious, like the one in which Lawrence attempts tutoring Freddy in the art of being suave and sophisticated; or when-- as part of a scam-- Freddy takes on the role of `Ruprecht,' Lawrence's incorrigible, moronic brother. It's in these scenes that Oz seems to give Martin, especially, some free reign, and the rewards are substantial. And it's definitely a joint effort on the part of the two stars; Martin is funny, but it's Caine's response to him that really makes it work. It also demonstrates that Oz knows his territory, and proceeds accordingly.
Caine gives a performance that presents Jamieson as the epitome of charm and experience, in the grand tradition of the likes of David Niven and Cary Grant. This is one smooth operator, and the fact that he lives by a personal `code' that only allows him to bilk the very rich (and only if they `deserve' it), enables you to like him for who and what he is. He's not a guy who's going to let a mark sell the family furniture and car to invest in one of his schemes; call him a con man with scruples. And Caine plays him to perfection.
Martin, however, is the one who really gets to cut loose in the role of Freddy, and without question, he does physical comedy better than anyone since Buster Keaton or Chaplin. Martin can get a laugh just by walking into a room. He invests Freddy with a less than retiring manner, and takes it over the top in his guise as Ruprecht, using his entire body as a vehicle through which he expresses this particular bit of lunacy. And seeing him in action is an absolute riot. As he did so successfully in his stand-up days, Martin parlays a facial expression combined with the most erratic movements of his arms and legs into a visual image that can be indescribably funny. He's one of the select few actor/comedians with a true and innate sense of real comedy, and moreover, he knows how to sell it to his audience.
As the seemingly hapless Janet, Headly does a good job, but it's a role that may have been more conducive to the likes of Melanie Griffith or even Diane Keaton, either of whom would've given the character a decidedly different spin.
The supporting cast includes Barbara Harris (Fanny), Ian McDiarmid (Arthur) and Dana Ivey (Mrs. Reed). Funny and thoroughly entertaining, `Dirty Rotten Scoundrels,' with it's contrasting comedic styles and polished presentation, is a minor classic in it's own right. A winner from the Land of Oz, wherein Caine and Martin are the reigning Royalty, this is one comedy that will definitely continue to withstand the test of time. 8/10.