102 minutes | Rated: R
Opened: Friday, October 2, 1998
Written & directed by Stanley Tucci
Starring Stanley Tucci, Oliver Platt, Steve Buscemi, Hope Davis, Lili Taylor, Isabella Rossellini, Tony Shalob, Campbell Scott & Billy Connoly
SMALL SCREEN SHRINKAGE: 20%|
LETTERBOX: COULDN'T HURT
An update on 20s and 30s screwball comedy, which most people have only seen on TV anyway, this picture won't suffer on video once you get past the opening (and best) scene, which makes use of the wide screen.
After 20 minutes of old school comedy genius, farce gallops off in too many directions at once
For twenty minutes, "The Impostors" is an ingenious, masterpiece homage to silent film comedy and 1930s screwball slapstick.
The first scene plays like a side-splitting silent short, worthy of Chaplin or Keaton, in which two men (Stanley Tucci and Oliver Platt) sitting at adjacent tables in a sidewalk cafe go from politely sharing a sugar shaker to fisticuffs and a knife fight that ends with one of them breaking into ridiculously spectacular death throes.
In the next scene the same two men, out-of-work actors of questionable talent it turns out, are back in their one-room, depression-era apartment arguing -- like lovers in a Howard Hawkes comedy -- about whose turn it was to die. Apparently they do this sort of thing all the time.
My tummy hurt from laughing, my interest was piqued and my expectations were high because 1) I'd never seen a modern farce that so deftly aped the timeless humor of these era comedies, and 2) "The Impostors" was written and directed by its star, Tucci, who was largely responsible for "Big Night," one of the most enjoyable and subtly satirical film of 1996.
But after another 20 minutes my hopes were dashed. Tucci and Platt stow away on a ocean liner and find themselves deeply immersed in half a dozen insane sub-plots involving romantic misery, sexual peccadilloes, budding German fascists and terrorism -- all of which are bursting with comedic potential, but terribly under-written, largely because Tucci failed to recognize that there were just too many elements to give any of them time to develop.
An A-list of indie regulars are on hand for these vignettes, most of whom have worked with Tucci in some capacity before. Steve Buscemi and Hope Davis are miserable romantics destined to fall in love. Isabella Rossellini is a deposed queen traveling in cognito. Tony Shalhoub is a clumsy, sex-starved spy planning to blow up the ship. Billy Connoly is a rugged, rich Scot of ambiguous sexuality. Campbell Scott is the ship's goose-stepping quartermaster, who is in love with activities coordinator Lili Taylor.
Trying to keep track of these people and a dozen others becomes a burden on the audience. As a writer Tucci is too attached to each character to recognize, as a director, that if he'd dropped two or three of them he wouldn't have to try to tie his movie together with nonsensical, arbitrary scenes like the one in which Tucci and Oliver find themselves running down the ship's corridors in drag (without explaining where they got the outfits) for no reason other than to segue into the next bit.
This stew is meant to come together in a symphony of absurdity like "Monkey Business," the 1931 Marx Brothers' classic which also featured stowaways among the well-to-do on a cruise. But while "Impostors" owes its inception to the Marx Brothers and their ilk, sophomore director Tucci gets himself, instead of his characters, buried under a avalanche of sight gags and one-liners as if he were Groucho opening the wrong closet door.
He keeps introducing eccentric after oddball after weirdo until the narrative becomes so cluttered and rushed the film feels like standing in the middle of an out-of-control carousel watching the horses go by in a blur.