Itâ€™s past time for a bit of comedy on Obstructed reView. Weâ€™ve been so concerned with murder and cowboys that a little lighter subject-matter will be welcomed by at least, letâ€™s say, me. So: comedy jokes! I considered this one and Iâ€™ll write about this one sometime, but today I settled on The Impostors since I feel it didnâ€™t get enough love when it was released all the way back in 1998. To be fair, it was kind of a tough sell to much of the country. No big stars (unless you count Isabella Rossellini, and Iâ€™ll level with you: I always make it a point to count Isabella Rosselliniâ€”NSFW: youâ€™re boss ainâ€™t cool), and we know that a dozen indie and/or character legends usually arenâ€™t enough to generate massive nation-wide ticket-sales (or so studio advertising budgets seem to constantly assume). Many of the actors went on to television stardom and gained movie fame after this one (though not necessarily because of it).
Star Stanley Tucci decided to follow his near-perfect debut (possibly NSFW: Italians speaking English) as writer-director-producer by hiring much of the same cast but taking a very different approach. If Big Night is (as Roger Ebert is dead-on to suggest) a peer to films from Mexico, Japan, and Denmark, then this story is a 30â€™s-era love-letter to Billy Wilder and Preston Sturgess. That “The Impostors” falls a bit short of those lofty influences is hardly something to be held against it. Most of todayâ€™s movies canâ€™t begin to match the pace, wit or creativity of films like The Miracle of Morgan’s Creek or Some Like it Hot. Those that have tried in recent decades are usually either embarrassing failures or self-consciously condescending. The Impostors isnâ€™t perfect, by any means. Itâ€™s a little messy, a little long. But it absolutely succeeds in its biggest ambition: itâ€™s a freaking funny movie.
As the opening credits roll, we are treated to a simple silent-film routine: a gentlemenâ€™s duel between Stanley Tucciâ€™s Arthur and Oliver Plattâ€™s Maurice. Once the dialogue is audible, it becomes clear that the two are stage actors who are depressed and desperate. They have no work, they have no prospects and their friends are doing quite well. Thatâ€™s a three-fold curse in their business and the next half-hour is full of their daily struggle to stay alive in the mean city. They practice their acting exercises, stage an improvised scene in a pastry shop and have a promising audition go completely off the rails in front ofÂ a playwright known for his artistic passion and explosive family life (the actor in this role is an inspired casting choice). As we get accustomed to their day-to-day routine, the whole premise of the story is twisted as Maurice and Arthur attend a performance of Hamlet by â€œthe great Jeremy Burtomâ€ (I canâ€™t tell if Alfred Molina based his Burtom on Richard Burton or Nicol Williamson, but it doesnâ€™t really matter). After the show, they meet a friend (who had played Laertes) for the traditional small-talk. Everybody knocks back a few too many (NSFW: google image search) and as Maurice is hilariously critiquing Burtomâ€™s performance, heâ€™s overheard by the star who attacks like a wild animal of some sort. What follows is the first of many Three Stooges/Marx Brothers chase scenes that pepper the film.
The next morning, the actors awaken in a shipping container on the deck of a cruise ship about to cast off. The rest of the film follows them as they are hunted by the shipâ€™s crew and Burtom as well as an amorous professional wrestler. Men wear dresses, terrorists lurk under beds and criminals are seemingly everywhere. Thereâ€™s a scene where delicate piece of equipment is repaired by an unexpected pelvic thrust. We also get an eloquent lesson in the pure beauty of Greco-Roman wrestling. The Queen (deposed) mourns her lost throne (and love), while Hope Davis and Steve Buscemi have the kind of extended cameos that make a movie memorable. The filmâ€™s best moments remind me of Lucille Ball and even of her mentor Buster Keaton (the way The Black Crowes remind me of Led Zeppelin: both are amazing, but if forced to choose I donâ€™t hesitate). Lili Taylor and Billy Connolly (NSFW: Scot) are always good, but here they are perfect in roles that in other decades might have gone to Sally Field and Donald Gibb. All the loose ends are tied up (rather quickly, and thatâ€™s okay) and suddenly there are fireworks and everyone dances into the sunset. The end.
One canâ€™t really have spoilers in a film like this, because the ending is never in doubt. Itâ€™s a movie about old movies. Itâ€™s about actors and their insecurities (which they acknowledge, mock and justify). Mostly, though, it seems to be about a bunch of artists having a lot of fun with a genre that isnâ€™t much in demand these days except in cult form: smart comedy about stupid people. Prat falls are constant and cast-wide, but maybe the funniest moment in the film involves a quick, subtle exchange of two pencils. Itâ€™s a Comedy in the oldest sense. Enemies become friends become kissers and nobody dies (pretty much). If itâ€™s not quite Some Like it Hot, at least itâ€™s Three Amigos or A Fish Called Wanda (NSFW: Vulgarian). And thatâ€™s more than good enough. The Impostors is ready for you on Amazon as a streamer or very affordably on DVD. Get to it.
Todayâ€™s streaming bonus suggestion is just a little trip down the YouTube rabbit hole. All this talk about Golden Age comedy has me checking out some of my old favorites. Thereâ€™s this one from these guys and a bunch of classic clips you have to have seen already to have lived a happy life. That last link is to the unaired pilot of I Love Lucy. At about 25:45 you can find the skit they performed together on the Vaudeville circuit that led to many of their later successes. Watching scenes like these led me to remember this and this one and that and of course this. In all, I hope that a few of these might be worthwhile reminders while others send you off on your own freaky free-association of drunk-work, physical comedy and verbal gymnastics. Get to it.