Sep 24 2009

Dirty Rotten Scoundrels

Film Duel is our written review format in which Benn and James each review a film, and then comment on each others’ reviews to give a proper balance and really fill out the commentary as well as possible.  This week we take on something a little different in the form of Dirty Rotten Scoundrels the con comedy starring Steve Martin versus Michael Caine.  It’s one of the more traditional films we’ve taken on, but it’s been out of the limelight for some time, and not a lot of people seem to be aware of it, so we thought we’d try it out.

Dirty Rotten Scoundrels
Year: 1988
Directed by: Frank Oz
Written by: Dale Launer and Stanley Shapiro
Starring: Steve Martin and Michael Caine
Genre: Comedy (Con Film)

Benn and James’ reviews and rebuttals follow after the jump.

James says:

The genre of con films already has plenty of charm, even when it’s done in an entirely straight-faced manner.  Something about the mind-games, deceptions, and twists and turns keeps things rewarding, if not immediately entertaining as things are built together.  But a little comedy certainly never hurt anyone.  And a lot of comedy, when it’s good, will obviously make a film a lot more fun.  Dirty Rotten Scoundrels, a Frank Oz film starring Steve Martin and Michael Caine may be more comedy than it is con film, but it still mixes the two in a unique way.  It finds it’s freshness simply in the combination of the two genres, and definitely not by being revolutionary in either of the two individually.

The film is essentially about two con men of very different styles competing against each other.  One, the sleek borguoise Lawrence Jameson (Caine) wants to protect his home turf against the haphazard American “Jackal” (Martin).  They eventually settle on a bet to see who can con a woman, the “soap queen”, first.  It’s a plot you’d see in many romantic comedies, but, as with most con films, it doesn’t play out in quite the way you’d expect.  Still, it doesn’t rise to the level of cleverness of most con films, and it seems in most cases the plot is meant to serve the comedy rather than character or simple story.  Still, there are some simply great set pieces for the comedic prowess of the two actors that you would definitely not want to lose.  And the story never drags, nor does it feel there are things that need more fleshing out.  It’s a simple plot, and one that is served well by staying that way.

And speaking of comedic prowess, Steve Martin appears here at the top of his game.  He really is the highlight of the movie, and Michael Caine, despite his gravitas, has trouble competing for the audience’s attention.  Still, the Jameson character has some entertainingly sly moments, and it’s his character that truly keeps in the spirit of the confidence man genre much better.  But there are some classic Steve Martin scenes in this movie, including a particularly brilliant one in a jail cell in which he takes a joke past the point of unfunny and back into funny again from repetition, not unlike one of Seth McFarlane’s favorite strategies for comedy on Family Guy.  The duo has a good chemistry together, if mostly because they fit together so badly.  But, with two older white guys, it’s unclear as to whether most modern younger audiences would be able to latch on to this film.  Ageism has really settled in with Hollywood, and it is rarer and rarer for two men in their middle ages to be in a film without it being specifically directed at an adult or even senior audience.  Nonetheless, when viewed as a product of its age, it is still very funny and enjoyable.

As for the more technical aspects of the film, Dirty Rotten Scoundrels does not find its strength in these areas.  As with most comedies, the cinematography is bland so as to allow the comedians room to work their magic and keep the focus on the comedy.  Frank Oz was at this point somewhat inexperienced, and so there isn’t much of an artistic flair present.  The music in the film makes very little impression as well.  The one true cinematic flair is the opening, in which faces are never shown, but rather close ups on hands and jewelry.  This is a great way to introduce Michael Caine’s character, as you see the subtle touches that make him so proficient at what he does.

When it comes down to it, Dirty Rotten Scoundrels is a good, entertaining comedy.  It’s light and doesn’t revolutionize much of anything, other than to synergize two genres with a balance that is somewhat different than the usual approach.  If you’re a fan of Steve Martin, or even of just good comedy, there’s plenty to like here.

Benn says:

In contrast with other con films like The Sting and the Ocean series, Frank Oz’s Dirty Rotten Scoundrels plays more like a farce; placing two different con artists in enough twists, tricks, pitfalls and errors to make Danny Ocean say, “I’m out”.

Taking place in France, Lawrence Jamieson (Michael Caine) is an English con man who lives a rich, cultured life due to his scamming of old, wealthy, corruptible women out of money and jewels.  Freddy Benson (Steve Martin) is a sleazy, small time con man traveling through Europe clumsily getting by on the sympathies of rich women.  When Freddy poses a threat to Lawrence’s watering hole of cash cows, Lawrence comes up with a challenge to deduce which of the two is the better confidence man: Whoever can swindle fifty grand from young heiress Janet Colgate (Glenne Headly) first, gets to stay in the rich, coastal town, whereas the loser has to leave.

Although Scoundrels is a con film on the surface, it is, first and foremost a comedy.  All the comedy comes from Caine and Martin’s partnership and rivalry, and both actors play off each other surprisingly well.  Martin is perfect as the bumbling, yet effective Benson, whose sleazy mannerisms are countered by Martin’s over-the-top slapstick antics.  Caine, on the other hand, is a sophisticated, eloquent gentleman and acts as the perfect foil for Martin.  Granted, the humor that comes from Caine is far subtler, dry, and…well… British, but is just as hilarious as Martin.

Of course, we’ve all seen the partnerships and rivalries between the suave and the streetwise, the film gives us both, as the two con men start out as partners and end up competing, thus the audience gets to see just how both actor’s strengths and weaknesses fit together in different circumstances.  The scenes in which Martin and Caine work together are hilarious, although Martin steals these scenes pretending to be Caine’s retarded brother Rupert, and is given free reign to be as outrageous as possible, which is, or was, Martin’s specialty.  It isn’t until the two are pitted against one another that Caine begins to shine as an equal comedic force with his sense of timing and his humorous attempts at countering Martin’s advances in the con.

Although a supporting role Glenne Headly does a fine job as the good-hearted, sweet American visitor who becomes entangled with the two con men.  Although her funnier scenes are with Martin, she has a little unexpected chemistry with Caine, who is old enough to be her father. Although her character is not supposed to go beyond being an object of financial gain and bragging rites, Headly’s earnest portrayal of Janet Colgate gives her a little more depth and sympathy than one would expect.

Dirty Rotten Scoundrels is actually a remake of the 1964 con film Bedtime Story, starring David Niven and Marlon Brando, playing Caine and Martin’s roles respectively.  Obviously, the original film was not the comedy of errors that Scoundrels turned out to be, though this is not surprising given director Frank Oz.  Oz has a penchant for farces, whether it’s depicting an unconventional film set in Bowfinger (also with Steve Martin) or his British masterpiece Death at a Funeral, in which every possible thing that can go wrong in a funeral does, in all the right ways.

Though not a comedic milestone, Dirty Rotten Scoundrels is certainly more than a forgettable, mediocre film that provides a clever cat and mouse game that produces a number of genuinely funny moments.  This is not Michael Caine or Steve Martin’s best film, but their slapstick repartees keep the audience interested, and show us the comedic versatility and potential both actors posses.

Benn’s rebuttal:

I agree with James in that this film is not particularly remarkable; it is a simple, straight foward comedy.
My only real disagreement lies in James’ opinion of Michael Caine; I don’t think he had much trouble getting the audiences attention in the least bit.  Yes, Caine represents the true, debonair con man, but Caine’s timing and his dry, British wit works surprisingly well alongside Martin’s slapstick approach to comedy.

James’ rebuttal:

While neither Steve Martin nor Michael Caine’s best film, I know for myself, I’ve seen most of the good Steve Martin films already long ago.  So I think it was refreshing to find that there’s one more that I didn’t know about.

One Response to “Dirty Rotten Scoundrels”

  • Mark K. Says:

    This movie is a staple of my childhood along with another Steve Martin classic Sgt. Bilko. I’m really glad to see other people appreciating it. Thanks for the great reviews.

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