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Stanley Tucci’s directorial debut, Big Night, demonstrated that the actor has a good eye, a soft heart, and a keen ear for the sort of loving/wacky dialogue people get into when they live in a world whose terms are understood and easily reconcilable. The period setting gave the go-ahead to his old-fashioned sentimentality and the arch charm of his composition. If Big Night gave the lie to the charge that they don’t make them like that anymore, The Impostors re-creates them wholesale, on a scale that is both baffling in its context and winning for its stubborn dedication to old-style moviemaking, relevance be damned.
The opening scene wears its heart on its sleeveit’s an invitation to the curious and a warning to the potentially dismissive. In an unnamed city park stocked with ’30s charactersgirls in cloche hats and pastel sheaths, men in three-piece suitstwo men (Tucci and Oliver Platt) at an outdoor cafe engage in a battle of petty annoyances, to the increasing consternation of the crowd. The tension builds in an exquisite layering of mime “business,” until they whip out butter knives for a final battle to the death. It’s Zoo Story meets City Lights, played with Chaplinesque precision, and while the scene leaves the crowd and the viewing audience respectively aghast and thoroughly charmed, that level of silent-comedy perfection is never reached again. It harbors one final joke, though, as it fades out to the creditsStanley and Oliver certainly live up to their names.
Arthur (Tucci, thinly disguised by Stan Laurel’s real name) and Maurice (Platt) are actors out of work but still hopeful in a Depression-era wonderland of clean parks and pretty girls. In their picturesquely crummy digs, they trade acting exercises and argue over who gets the big death scene. They see themselves as true artistes, far too talented for careers spent frightening cafe patrons, but their lofty goals and high ham quotient keep skewing their plans. When they dispiritedly agree to put their acting talent toward scamming money and/or food, the scheme goes awryneither of them can stay in character while conning a recalcitrant baker into rewarding them with a boxful of cream puffs. The giddy delight of improvising takes over, and they leave with a pair of tickets to see Jeremy Burtom (Alfred Molina)a beloved thespian they know to be a hot-tempered sot and hopelessly coarse actorbefoul Hamlet.
One thing leads to another, the way these things do, and Arthur and Maurice find themselves stowaways on a swank ocean liner populated by colorful stock characters. There are Brooklyn crooks posing as French aristocrats, a deposed queen who hides her lovely face (it’s Isabella Rossellini, who should never hide) behind a peacock fan; Sparks, a well-known athlete (Billy Connolly) with bent sexual tendencies and the sturdy singleted trunk of old-fashioned macho men; a lascivious sheik (Teagle F. Bougere); a society divorcée (Dana Ivey) and her glum, frowsty daughter (Hope Davis, transformed into a gray-faced, chinless drear)and that’s just the passenger list. The crew includes cruise director Lily (Lili Taylor, unaccountably fresh-faced and perky), her puppy-eyed swain Marco (Matt McGrath), and Campbell Scott as a slick-haired German martinet in unyielding love with Lily. Already the chances are solid that there will be hi-jinks at the captain’s ball and that a whole lot of couples will be matched, and if you’re betting on a number of frantic foot chases down the poop deck, go to the window and collect your winnings. As for the inevitable drag scene, it’s remarkable how like Dawson’s Creek’s Michelle Williams Oliver Platt looks in a dress and blond wig.
Because Arthur and Maurice are stowaways, those chases land them in various cabins, so that The Impostors becomes a pastiche of their interactions with each of these people. It isn’t structurally sophisticated, nor does it pretend to be, and the intertwining roundelay of love, desire, and deceit the unwitting catalysts beget is both surprising and inevitable. The Impostors isn’t fall-down funny, nor as utterly of its time as it pretends to beTucci updates his gags while keeping well within the pre-Hays Code tradition of searing double-entendre. After he tumbles into Sparks’ room, the delighted athlete looks over Maurice, who admits to being half Greek. “Top half or bottom half?” Sparks shoots back, putting Spartacus’ snails and oysters to shame.
The costumes are lovely, the sets alternately Deco-licious and cheesy, the humor broad but unremitting. But Tucci’s heart, as usual, is in the connection between the two leads. Their friendship is deep and solicitous, for all their minor actorly betrayals. When they audition for a playwright (Woody Allen), each sports one sharpened yellow pencil in his lapelthe scene is a sword fight, and when the writer asks them to switch roles and try again, they courteously exchange pencils. Some bits thud, but many soar, as the actors sink their teeth hard into these meaty roles. Ivey is a divine rapacious broad of the old school, telling the maid, “I’m clothing-rich but cash-poor at the moment”; and Davis is muted but pitch-perfect drooping on the floor with a copy of Poems of Loss. Tony Shalhoub plays a terrorist posing as the first mate, and when he rants to his girlfriend via short-wave radio that the bomb he intends to detonate will destroy all the rich bourgeoisie who drank champagne while “we did not bathe,” the girlfriend quietly counters, “I bathed.”
Not David Mamet, surely, but the world needs an antidote to reality; there’s nothing on the screen less realistic than The Impostors, and there are few things more heartfelt. The penultimate scene even denies the previous 90 minutes of relentless silliness, when the perfectly paired couples snuggle against the ship’s railing as fireworks burst overhead and Davis sings a song of love in French with exquisite tenderness.
When I wrote, years ago in another publication, that Beastmaster 2: Through the Portal of Time was “the best film my cats ever wrote,” I wasn’t being quite honest. Beastmaster 2 was the only film my cats ever wrote; frankly, they never even saw the original BeastmasterZazie claimed it would “damage the integrity” of their current project, and then Charlotte vomited on the settee. The creative process isn’t pretty.
The point is: A Night at the Roxbury is the second film written by Fred, Zazie, and Charlotte; and now that Claude the chocolate-point Siamese has joined our little art factory, the three of them have a business manager. I was quite impressed that Claude managed to swing a deal with TV bigwigs to bring one of Saturday Night Live’s most popular skits to the big screenthose Beverly Hills boobies the Butabi brothers, tacky second-generation Yemenites with a house on Canyon Drive, a closetful of hideous neon silk suits, and only one ambition: to get into the hottest club in L.A. After all, it isn’t written in stone, is it, that any SNL skit converted into film will suck and bomb and shame the studio that made it forever? Most do, of course, if they even make it to theaters (It’s Pat, thank heaven, did not), and every so often (well, once), the SNL crowd produces a winnerStuart Saves His Family, the funniest and most honest depiction of American at-home dysfunction everbut the taint is overpowering, and the populace stay home in droves. What I’m trying to say is what Claude told the studio execs: “Wayne’s World.” And before you know it, we were having white mice flown in daily and Claude had to get his own phone line.
Well, I hate to have to do this to my own pets, but Beastmaster 2 is still the best movie my cats ever wrote. Frankly, I blame Claude. Fred, Charlotte, and Zazie are artists, say what you will about their shoddy characterization, lack of emotional focus, and weak command of mise en scène, but A Night at the Roxbury reeks of business decisionsthe film about the guys trying to open their own nightclub, which is watchable if not lively, screeches to a halt so that passive brother Steve (Will Ferrell, miscast even on TV) can be tricked into almost-marriage by a harpy (Molly Shannon), and no one can think of anything for the dynamic and funnier Doug (Chris Kattan) to do most of the time. This film is even more shapeless and indistinct than Beastmaster 2, and, I am sorry to say, the worst film my cats ever wrote.CP