Saturday, September 13, 2014

cinema obscura: Michael Hoffman's "Gambit"

I've said it before, but it bares repeating: Hollywood routinely makes and releases awful movies - on  a weekly basis, no less - and spares no expense marketing them.

I reiterate this in preamble to the fact that Michael Hoffman's 2012 remake of "Gambit" (material that hardly deserved revamping) is no better or worse than the junk currently littering your neighborhood cineplex.

Actually, it's my hunch that it's probably much better than the movie you paid $50 (including concession "food") to see last weekend.

But someone at CBS Films, its American distributor - someone apparently overpaid to make dubious decisions - decided that the new "Gambit" is an offensive embarrassment, despite its pedigree.  Two years after it toured the rest of the world,  CBS elected to release the movie last April in a handful of cities in America.  If you live in New York, for example, where the film temporarily played, you probably didn't know where to see it because there were no display ads.  (But a belated New York Times review thoughtfully guided potential moviegoers to the Village East Cinema.)

The original "Gambit," directed in 1966 by Ronald Neame, was a standard '60s caper flick which paired the then-hot Michael Caine with Shirley MacLaine, who was experiencing one of her rare down periods.  (Universal, the film's producer, would next cast her in one of her greatest roles, "Sweet Charity.")  Caine and MacLaine played a cat burglar and a dancer who team up for a heist of a sculpture that exploits both their talents.

It was all fairly tepid.

The remake teams Colin Firth (an apt stand-in for Caine) and Cameron Diaz (who doesn't play a dancer here, but a cowgirl - don't ask) in the heist of a painting.  They are backed by a trio of A-list supporting players - Alan Rickman, Stanley Tucci and Tom Courtenay - and they get to read dialogue written by no less than Ethan and Joel Coen.  This version of the material is a step up from tepid, thanks largely to the way the Coens have fiddled with their script; the odd chemistry shared by Firth and Diaz, and especially Hoffman's off-kilter direction. Which is no surprise. At least, not to me.

Hoffman has always marched to a different drummer, amassing a refreshingly eclectic filmmography - "Some Girls," "Soapdish," "One Fine Day," "Restoration," "The Last Station," "Promised Land" and his Kevin Kline-Michelle Pfeiffer "A Midsummer Night's Dream."

He's an original.  His new film - no so much.

Both Firth and Diaz have experienced a few career bumps of late, so it's so surprise that they would bump into each other here.  Diaz made a good film that was dismissed - Ridley Scott's "The Counselor." And Firth has made two good films that were dismissed - Atom Egoyan's "Devil's Knot" and Jonathan Teplitzky's "The Railway Man." And both have starred in disappointing comedies - Firth in "Magic in the Moonlight" and Diaz in two, "The Other Woman" and "Sex Tape." "Gambit" is another bump.

But it's really nothing more serious than that.  Honest.


Alex said...

I agree. The original "Gambit" was no great shakes as a movie, but I found the new version just about indeciperable. And I think I'm fairly intelligent and can follow even an intricate plot. My theory is that it was tampered with before being unleashed on the public. It's the only explanation for a film made by so many otherwise dependable people.

joe baltake said...

Alex- Your theory makes sense. The film could have been recut. But let me play devil's advocate here. If it wasn't, it what is on screen is what the Coens and Hoffman delivered, then maybe the person(s) who elected to dump it ain't so dumb.

Arlene said...

I had no idea that this movie even existed. With that cast, how can that be???

wwolfe said...

Hoffman's "Soapdish" is one of my favorite (relatively) modern movies - one of the few that captures the spirit of the great screwball comedies of the 1930s, without self-consciously aping them.