by A.J. Hakari
Gambit comes backed by the sort of pedigree that’d make you do a spit-take once you learned how hard its distributors tried to bury it. The idea for the picture — remade from a 1966 caper — had been around since the ’90s, stranded in development hell for a spell before a rather enviable cast and crew was assembled to give the project some life. Starring big names like Cameron Diaz and Colin Firth, penned by the Coen Brothers, and directed by Game 6‘s Michael Hoffman, Gambit might not have been destined for masterpiece status, but it definitely had the makings of quality escapist fun, thanks to some really talented folks. What a shock it is, then, to see their efforts pay off with a movie that’s in such disorder, one seriously ponders the possibility of imposters leaving the creative team bound and gagged in a closet somewhere while their good names were being sullied. Alright, so Gambit isn’t as atrocious as all that, but when it’s bad, it’s dreadful, an almost totally impotent con comedy that exhibits mere shades of the sensibilities for which its creators are beloved.
Harry Deane (Firth) isn’t the smoothest operator, but he’s certainly a man of ambition. Years of serving in the employ of unctuous media mogul Lionel Shahbandar (Alan Rickman) have driven him up the wall, and he’s out for revenge in a huge way. With the help of an art forger friend (Tom Courtenay), Harry plans to fleece Lionel for a small fortune by presenting a long lost painting’s reproduction as the real deal. Enlisting cowgirl P.J. Puznowski (Diaz) to impersonate the piece’s owner, our hero sets his scheme into motion and sits back to watch his boss take the bait. Unfortunately, Harry’s plan hits something of a snag from the get-go, as he’s inadvertently cut out of the game completely at a crucial point. With the headstrong P.J. proving more than adept at wrapping Lionel around her finger, Harry finds himself in quite a bind as he attempts to worm his way back into his own con and fend off anymore potential hitches.
Gambit aims for a playfully quirky vibe with its humor that ends up feeling forced and obnoxious. There’s an intentionally awkward edge to its jokey set pieces (mostly geared at humiliating Harry for no good reason), but the pauses during which I assume viewers were supposed to guffaw themselves silly come to form a seemingly endless parade of dead patches. The script is littered with peculiar little asides and weirdo characters — which, as far as the Coens are concerned, is par for the course. This time, however, they’re even more gratuitously strange than usual, as if they’re placeholders for the movie to come back to once it’s figured out how to use them. As a matter of fact, Gambit has a real unfinished vibe as a whole, coming across as though the Coens hammered out a rough draft, left to do something else, then returned to find the script filmed before they had a chance to iron out the details. You never get a sense of why Harry is supposed to be such a loser, why everyone finds P.J. so incredibly endearing, or why Lionel is so deserving of being duped (he’s a blowhard, sure, but not exactly worthy of being the target of a Danny Ocean-style shakedown). It’s not even all that fun to watch the pieces of Harry’s scheme come together, for instead of having him cleverly adapt to the challenges that come his way, the film opts to just mock him until it decides some other character can move the plot along in his place.
With the how’s and why’s of the story never quite coming together, it’s a mad dash for Gambit‘s performers to look like they know what they’re doing, at which they more or less succeed. Diaz isn’t that fortunate, what with her Sandy Cheeks-ian accent, but as she’s just one in an entire movie packed with bizarre personalities hell-bent on making an impression, it’s hard to blame the actress herself and not the directing. Firth fares the best out of the cast, with his deadpan delivery and normally sharp timing helping a lot of the gags get the snickers that they’re supposed to. That isn’t to say that the film doesn’t leave him flailing about in go-nowhere bits, but despite the story never revealing the reason why he’s so dead set on conning Lionel until the end (in a twist that’s not worth all the farting about that led up to it), Firth maintains a great attitude and turns in a mostly fun performance. Rickman’s also having a blast as the self-centered Lionel, although the character could easily have been cast in a much more savage light. Courtenay (The Dresser) serves as our narrator and Harry’s closest confident, and while he too is around just to heap more goofy onto the picture’s plate, he at least gets to say a few amusing lines for his troubles.
As a con artist movie junkie and fan of just about all the parties involved in its production, it was completely unreal to see Gambit flounder this badly. It never summons a signature style, a large chunk of the jokes are duds, and the script nearly ruins whatever chemistry the actors try to create between one another. Though far from a career-killing fiasco, Gambit is a plodding and unfunny mess, made by people who should’ve been smart enough to fix its failures before it was too late.