THE IMPOSTORS (1998) ** 1/4
Platt (Maurice) and Tucci (Arthur), are Depression-era, unemployed stage actors (or would-be actors, it is unclear) and almost literally starving. They find themselves impersonating stewards on a transatlantic liner going to France. The main action of the film involves a crew and passengers, mostly off-the-wall characters inspired by stock types in old comedies.
The Impostors uses up its best scenes early. The opening is an all-silent, nifty parody of pals Arthur and Maurice having coffee in a lovely outdoor cafe, getting into a pretend fight in public, stabbing each other with stage (fake) knives. Why this? It is open to interpretation. The duo may be practicing the "realism" of their art as thespians, or trying to get out of paying for their coffees, or both. It is an amusing sequence, although it goes on for too long.
Then the buddies take turns as, in their shoddy room, they rehearse various stage emotions and reactions. A hopeful visit to a producer (Woody Allen, uncredited) gets nowhere as Allen's rich wife phones to tell him that she is dumping both him and her financing the play. In a bakery, they scam the owner into providing free samples of pastries in an energetic, rather inventive scene, but also a bit messy in its writing as well as protracted by farcical standards.
They somehow end up with the baker's gift of tickets for a performance of Hamlet starring big-name thespian Jeremy Burtom (Alfred Molina). He is a ham actor they detest and who performs in alcoholic stupor.
In a bar, after the show, Maurice publicly caricatures Burtom, the latter walks in, all hell breaks loose, the pals are chased by cops, hide in a ship's container, wake up the next morning as unwilling stowaways on board the liner...and have to pose as stewards.
So far, so good, in spite of flaws. The big balance of the film is on the ship. It uses the old formula of motley characters within an enclosed space, something that can be found in many genres, from war films (foxholes, submarines) to public transportation (John Wayne and others in John Ford's Stagecoach; Murder in the Orient Express; the ship in the Marx Brothers' A Night at the Opera; etc. etc.), to Grand Hotel-type movies, to the Towering Inferno, and on and on...
Among the passengers, who shows up but Burtom, the pals' Nemesis, who spots them and adds to the complications, of which there is a Niagara. Almost all caused by characters who by and large already are, or become impostors, in one way or another. (They are played by good New York actors). The First Mate speaks an invented Eastern European language, is a dedicated Red who plans to blow up the ship; a couple (man and woman) of French "aristocrats" are in reality underworld figures; a society widow hides the fact she's destitute and pins her hopes on her wallflower daughter finding a rich husband on the ship; an incognito, veiled lady is a deposed queen who turns out to be the ship Captain's long-lost love; and more. Others, presumably authentic, are a black African sheik; stewardess Lily who loves a fellow steward but is pursued by the Nazi-like Head Steward; a suicidal singer (Buscemi) who will be saved by love; etc.
There are problems with all this. There is a plethora of characters, all of whom are almost totally undeveloped, even by farcical standards. Their interactions and interrelationships are nonexistent, or at best, arbitrary. The continuity, also arbitrary and haphazard feels like a series of improvisations which must have been great fun for the cast and crew but less so for this viewer. Some funny bits (there are several) get weakened by the script's cavalier construction.
On a basic level, The Impostors has been caught in a double trap. It ignores the fact that comedy is very hard to write and execute. Think of the famous 19th century actor who on his deathbed, addressed his loved ones: "Don't cry for me. Dying is easy, comedy is hard. "
Comedy needs well-crafted dialogue (absent here).Think of the superb Preston Sturges films which The Impostors faintly echo. Farce has to be constructed like clockwork. Even the successful exceptions to such rules (the Marx Bros, Monty Python) have a hidden logic/illogic that make for a feeling of improvisation but are the fruit of experience.
Then there is the other major trap. You cannot parody with real success what is already a parody. Many a clever writer-director have failed at this in their take-offs of established comedies and of "serious" genres that contain humor, such as Hitchcock movies. Here, I have the same feeling I might get from a printed column that tries to imitate Dave Barry's.
The Impostors spoofs elements of so many older films that the question
is "which genres does it NOT spoof?" And why is this done so spottily in
this movie? Take the shot of many people inside a closet. Unlike its model,
Groucho Marx's cabin in A Night at the Opera, it does not go to rib-tickling,
outrageous extremes and has no true context. The film, unbridled in its
movie-consciousness, piles on too much, as if following the "more is more"
There are compensations, however. Film buffs will be kept busy figuring out the in-jokes and the quotes from or allusions to older movies. (The references to silent films are also intensified by the use of intertitles, some funny, others forced).
Tucci and Platt are obvious neo-Laurel and Hardy, strictly in appearance
and not in their characters and rapport. Their fake doctors probably issue
from A Day at The Races. Tucci brings the movie's sources up to later decades
at least twice.He has the gay character utter a variant of Joe E.
Brown celebrated last line in Some Like it Hot (1959) He is smitten by Jack Lemmon (as a girl) who tells him "I'm a man" to which the imperturbabale Brown replies "Nobbody's perfect. "
In another instance, Tucci also may well have been thinking of Francois Truffaut's Shoot the Piano Player (1960) in which a character says something like "That's true. I swear it on my mother's head, " and we see a silent-movie-type insert of an old lady keeling over.
The look of the ship is in clever opposition to the Titanic-style luxury of real and movie ocean liners. Interiors are stagy, even tacky, portholes show a painted sea that does not move, the floor of corridors is linoleum, and so on.
Several other details are nice. Perhaps the best visual is the makeup of Alfred Molina, whose Jeremy Burtom at first looks like a dead ringer of the boozing John Barrymore. Then the likeness disappears.
Inexplicably, the press information's credits says zero about the music
and those responsible for what is a most winning aspect of the film: the
choice of lovely period tunes, many using bandoneons (a type of concertina).We
are treated to Hispanic classics--Siboney, La Cumparsita, Adios Muchachos...The
black Sheik is passionate about his original 78 rpm shellac record of the
French Parlez-moi d'Amour (Speak to Me of Love), a huge hit for decades,
sung and made famous by Lucienne Boyer. And Steve Buscemi's rendition of
The Nearness of You is surprisingly good.