Movie review: Gambit
Film may be written by the Coens, but you shouldn't get your hopes up
Posted: March 20, 2013
Shouldering the blame. Firth is perfectly cast but badly managed in this wannabe art-heist movie.
Written by the Coen brothers and directed by a fellow named Michael Hoffman, known better for his romantic comedies (like the very fine One Fine Day) than his capers, Gambit is a heist movie that never really gets off the ground.
Bargaining on the awkward but fuzzy charm of its leading man, Colin Firth as art curator Harry Deane, the film is not clever enough to outfox us, and its romance - which can work wonders in a story that is handled with more prudence, like The Thomas Crown Affair - is tepid throughout, although there are several hints that Deane may be smitten.
The object of his smittenness is P.J. Puznowski (Cameron Diaz), a rodeo champ from deep in Texas, whose surname has intrigued Deane, bent on taking revenge on his boss, the ultra-rich businessman Lionel Shabandar (Alan Rickman). The reason for this revenge is never properly established, although there is a short flashback to an incident on a farm when the boss was rather mean to his thin-skinned art connoisseur. Except for that, we are expected to simply assume that, because it is Alan Rickman playing the role, his dark qualities from the Harry Potter films will be enough to warrant our empathy for Deane.
They don't, however, and that is just one of the film's many problems in engaging us with the material. The Coen brothers' own Intolerable Cruelty was a masterstroke of writing and acting: Although fluffy, the film's many detours took on an Escher staircase dimension that was happily smoothed over by the voluptuous Catherine Zeta-Jones and the smooth-talking George Clooney.
Directed by Michael Hoffman
With Colin Firth, Cameron Diaz, Alan Rickman, Tom Courtenay
While Diaz's P.J. is a wonderful invention, one the actress enthusiastically sinks her teeth into, it is a very different situation altogether for Firth, a recent recipient of the Academy Award for Best Actor. Here, he plays a boring man with a plan that would make him a hero for nerds everywhere if he were to pull it off without a hitch. Through a series of very serendipitous encounters with the personnel of London's Savoy Hotel, Firth's character makes another awkward transition to unexpected sex symbol, a metamorphosis that is never particularly credible, even in this fiction.
The basic plot revolves around an Impressionist painting. As in The Thomas Crown Affair, the painter is Monet, although Gambit's Haystacks at Dusk is fictitious. It is the life passion of businessman Shabandar to get his hands on the painting, having spent a fortune a few years earlier to acquire its companion piece, Haystacks at Dawn.
Deane, who fancies himself a master heister, decides to track down P.J. Puznowski, team up with her and a friend who happens to be a forger of some regard, and make millions of pounds by selling the forgery to Shabandar. In the process, unfortunately, both the businessman and Deane lust after the cowgirl from Texas, although neither of them pursues her with enough zeal to create any kind of comedy for us.
There is a funny opening gimmick that shows us things aren't always what we expect; moreover, they are often very different from what Deane expects (this was also an important part of the original 1966 film that starred Michael Caine, although the plot was not at all the same), although these differences are not always in good taste. One particularly peculiar detail is Deane's conviction that his boss is an exhibitionist, although we have no reason to believe it is true, and nor does he. Nonetheless, this rumor is at one point taken for gospel, which leads to some wholly predictable moments of cringe.
The film doesn't have much going for it except Diaz, who can still surprise us from time to time with her character's ability to steamroll the competition with charm that hides her true killer ambitions very well. Firth, who struts around for a large part of the film without any trousers, doesn't manage to imbue Deane with much energy. Perhaps the reason is that we have no clear idea why he is going through with this scheme after all. He may not have the warmest boss in the world, but is all this backstabbing really the best way for him to get a new life?
One character that does manage to provide some intrigue is the forger, played by Tom Courtenay. While the actor has certainly seen better days, the scenes of him putting the final touches to a Monet or a Jackson Pollock (making one wonder how on earth you go about forging a Pollock) provide some much-needed humor to the film.
It is regrettable, however, that the film is not funnier. Given the provenance of its screenplay, one would have expected the dialogue to be more caustic and the twists and turns more adventurous. For that, you'd have to wait for the brothers to have a directors' credit, too.
André Crous can be reached at