When is a Coen Bros. film not a Coen Bros. film? I can imagine The Dude poring over this koan for hours, but the answer’s quite simple: when it’s “Gambit,” the neo-screwball comedy directed by Michael Hoffman, working off a script by Joel and Ethan Coen.
The Coens have always been avid proponents of de- and reconstructing genre — be it the gangster film in “Miller’s Crossing,” the hardboiled detective flick in “The Big Lebowski” or classic westerns with “True Grit” — and “Gambit” seems to be a similar exercise in 1950s-60s British caper comedy, so much so that you can easily imagine Peter Sellers slipping effortlessly into Colin Firth’s role here.
In fact, the Coens have covered this territory before with their 2004 remake of the Alec Guiness-starring 1955 classic “The Ladykillers,” and “Gambit” itself is something of a remake, loosely based on the 1966 heist comedy starring Michael Caine and Shirley MacLaine. Given that “The Ladykillers” might have been the worst Coen Bros. movie ever, the only way to go here is up.
Colin Firth and Cameron Diaz — looking far better than anyone has a right to at their ages (52 and 40 respectively) — play your usual bickering odd couple who become partners in crime. Harry Deane (Firth) is a curator and art appraiser who seeks some comeuppance against his fantastically wealthy and abusive boss, Lionel Shahbandar (Alan Rickman). Harry sets out to fleece him using an expertly forged Monet, but he needs to concoct a convincing back story as to why this supposedly lost painting has suddenly appeared on the market.
Enter PJ Puznowski (Diaz), a comely but impulsive poultry-plant worker and part-time rodeo star from small-town Texas. Her grandfather had a tenuous connection with the painting’s last known whereabouts, and Harry plans to convince Lionel that the Monet has been sitting on her trailer home wall for decades, its value unrecognized by these redneck philistines. PJ turns out to be a loose cannon, though, and Harry’s plan comes within inches of unraveling when art appraiser Martin Zaidenweber (Stanley Tucci) is called in.
Diaz is in her comfort zone as the ditzy cowgirl, Rickman is a master of condescending scorn, Tucci camps it up as usual and Firth does his best at rumpled fluster in a role originally written for Hugh Grant. The group of rival Japanese art collectors (Togo Igawa, Tanroh Ishida, et al.) who turn up mid-film may strike a jarring note with local audiences, though the filmmakers would seem to be parodying ’60s grinning obsequious oriental cliches … one would hope.
“Gambit” starts off slow, but takes off in the middle section with a very funny riff on Harry’s trouserless travails at the swanky hotel where he’s put up PJ, then winds back down in the end, having peaked too soon. Hoffman’s so on his game in this one section, you wonder what happened to the rest. If you’re expecting something equal to top-form Coens, “Gambit” will disappoint, but if you’re up for a mildly entertaining romp or are a fan of the leads, you could do worse.
For a chance to win one of five special “Gambit” file folders, visit http://jtimes.jp/film. The deadline is May 27.