Joel and Ethan Coen are known and beloved for the movies they write and direct together, but once in a while they receive a screen credit outside of their own tightly controlled work. A movie like Gambit, which they wrote but did not direct or produce, offers a peek into an alternate universe where the Coens are Barton Fink-like scribes for hire. Filmed a few years ago, shelved for a while, and now receiving a quick and probably contractually obligated release before it turns up on disc, Gambit unofficially remakes a 1966 heist movie starring Michael Caine and Shirley MacLaine. The credits cite only the original short story by Sidney Carroll as source material—which makes sense considering how much of the previous film has been tossed out.
Still, the filmmakers must have seen the first film; the new version’s opening section makes that clear. Gambit begins with a swift outline of an art-forgery con to be perpetuated by Harry Deane (Colin Firth) on his nasty boss Lionel Shahbandar (Alan Rickman) with the help of chummy Texas rodeo gal PJ Puznowski (Cameron Diaz, seeming to channel Jan Hooks with her broad, ingratiating accent). The first half-hour scores a number of big laughs as it contrasts Deane’s ideal version of the job with its messier complications (the riff nicked most heavily from the 1966 version). Deane, it turns out, sometimes sounds a bit smarter than he actually is, and the alliance between the fastidious Brit and the gee-whiz Texan perfectly fits the Coens’ dual fascination with elaborate elocution and down-home hillbilly types. Specifically, Firth’s Deane is a Coen hero who would fit right into their early-’00s broad-comedy phase, alongside Miles Massey of Intolerable Cruelty and Goldthwait Higginson Dorr of The Ladykillers.
That may sound like damnation via the faintest of praise, but removed from the expectations that come with a Coen brothers film and placed into the capable hands of director Michael Hoffman, Gambit has a larkish tone and a snappy pace—at least for a while. When the movie veers away from the verbal gymnastics of a bunch of colorful dopes out-dumbing one another and into overindulged farce, the specificity of the Coens’ writing begins to fade. A door-slamming, ledge-climbing, mid-movie sequence set at a London hotel goes on for too long, and while it’s well-managed (as one might hope from the director of the finely tuned farce Soapdish), it also manages to put the movie’s actual plot on hold.
That’s an easy task, because there isn’t much plot here for either a heist or a farce. Deane wants to fool Shahbandar with a forgery of a Monet painting (invented for the movie but based on an actual series of paintings of haystacks), and then there’s lots of dithering about how to go about that when it proves more difficult than he initially thought. For a few bizarre moments, Gambit even treats Deane’s obstacles as an underdog story, trying to insert moments of lesson-learning sweetness in place of the gamesmanship that should drive the relationships between the characters. Whether the Coens wrote those fragments or not, they feel tacked on and off-key. Still, the actors look good in Hoffman’s crisply cartoonish compositions, scattered laughs follow that very funny opening section, and the movie is far less of a disaster than its embarrassed release pattern suggests. In the end, it just lacks that Coen brothers feeling.