Gambit: (in chess) an opening move in which a player makes a sacrifice, typically of a pawn, for the sake of a compensating advantage.
Well, it certainly appears sacrifices were made in this 2012 production but it’s really kind of hard to pin down exactly where at first cursory glance over the cast and crew. With all the big stars illuminating the cast you’d be forgiven for believing it was a shoo-in for ‘Comedy of the Year’. The director, Michael Hoffman, is relatively less well-known but has a good few films under his belt and the writing team? Surely the deft fingers of the Coen brothers, who can do no wrong, would be able to idly tap out a major studio hit while resting from writing so many others? You’d think. And yet, this is as flat as a pancake. Based extremely loosely on the original (a belter of a 1966 caper movie with Shirley MacLaine and Michael Caine), Gambit appears to lumber from ill-conceived set piece to ill-conceived set piece with no drive or passion to glue them together into a coherent whole.
I’ll flesh out the plot summary for you, as you’ll probably want to know what you’re getting yourselves into, should you ignore my advice not to see it at any cost. Harry Deane (Colin Firth) works as something of an independent art curator for his obsessive collector boss, Lionel Shahbandar (Alan Rickman), a man he despises. Having had enough of scraping a living working for the ungrateful boss, he hatches a cunning plan with his art-forger friend known only as ‘The Major’ to embezzle his hapless employer out of a sizable fortune. The plan is to get the Major to forge a copy of Monet’s masterpiece Haystacks at Dawn, then photograph it in a place where it would be feasible it had been hidden away for years. To add to the authenticity of the story, they employ the services of cowgirl rodeo rider PJ Puznowski (Cameron Diaz) to pretend it has been in her trailer for years, on account of her grandfather stealing it from retreating Nazis at the end of the second world war.
I wish I could add “…and then hilarity ensues”. However, I’d be doing myself a disservice as a reviewer and you as a filmgoer by pretending otherwise. The direction is as flat as an elephant’s foot, with the cast mired in a shambles that could use a GPS to get out of. The story is a fairly linear affair but you get the impression the cast have just put on different clothes and trusted to luck. Firth is seemingly uncomfortable with a slapstick role and makes a poor fist of being a bumbling fool when he’s so used to being the light-comedic heart-throb, or the guy in the flouncy shirt. Diaz does her best at being a rowdy cowgirl living it up in the big city on Deane’s ticket but I really get the feeling her heart wasn’t in it. ‘Cold’ and ‘wooden’ spring to mind. As for Alan Rickman, the apple of Picturenose’s eye and a man who can quite probably make a silk purse from a proverbial sow’s ear is mere filler in this outing. Characteristically sneering and nasty, he spends the entire time (when not trying to get into the knickers of Puznowski) being sneering and, well, nasty. Without a strong script, this is simply not enough to carry even an on-par Rickman rant or two. Oh yes, the script. What a lot of old tosh. Poorly based on the old movie, even if ever-so slightly, it has none of the pace, nor the wit we have come to expect from the Coens, although the direction may have a hand in the lack of pace and excitement. Do I expect too much of the Coens? I don’t think so, when you consider the quality of the script they penned for the re-do of True Grit (2010).
Mostly disappointing, poorly-used talent and badly paced, Gambit is a bit of a let-down from minute one. The gag everyone finds the most base and cheap is, in fact, the funniest. I wouldn’t dream of spoiling it here but you’ll know it when you see it. Although I’d urge you not to.