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The Impostors

Review by Elias Savada
Posted 2 October 1998

  Written and Directed by Stanley Tucci.

Starring Oliver Platt, Stanley Tucci,
Alfred Molina, Lili Taylor, Tony Shalhoub,
Steve Buscemi, Allison Janney, Matt McGrath,
Richard Jenkins, Campbell Scott, Billy Connolly,
Dana Ivey, Hope Davis, Alan Corduner,
Elizabeth Bracco, and Isabella Rossellini.

Stanley Tucci may have been born in 1960, but his heart and soul are steeped back in the 1930s, and his new-old Depression Era comedy is a joyful throwback to the wonderful, wacky days of the Marx Brothers and their theatrical-based productions. With rare exception, for all the times I watched hundreds of great and not-so-great burlesques, farces, and related light fare from the decade following that first stock market crash nearly 70 years ago, I’ve always wondered why they didn’t make films like those anymore. Well, the drought has finally ended. Move over, Harpo, Groucho, Chico, and Zeppo. Watch out, Laurel and Hardy. Here comes Platt and Tucci. Or is it Tucci and Platt. No matter. A new tour-de-farce team is born and you don’t want to miss this gem of an introduction.

Tucci, as writer, director, co-producer, and star, certainly has his hands full, but our sophomore multi-hyphenate (following on the critically successful debut of his Big Night), shows us that he is more than up to the task. As his new film opens, it’s as if it’s the dawning of the age of the movie talkie. Our heroes -- razor-thin and dagger-sharp Arthur (Tucci) and sweet-toothed, sugar-coated, and claustrophobic Maurice (Platt) -- are two starving actors, seated at adjoining tables in an outdoor café. They play off each other as strangers, the soundtrack devoid of dialogue but with a chatty score. Niceties are exchanged until they each proffer a seat to a pretty woman. They bounce the poor gal between them like a ping pong ball in the true manner of an old Keystone Komedy sketch. Knives are drawn. Death follows. So does sound.

Whoa! Didn’t I say this was a comedy? Well, look at the title. Take a minute. Don’t worry, no one’s dead. Next scene: Arthur berates Maurice, "You stole my death!" As the boys await their fame, let alone their next meal, we learn they are passionate, hungry thespians, eager to hone their profession in hopes of some day performing a "hall of fame" death scene.

Until that precious moment, they’ll bounce technique off each other and the world in between auditions (one involving a uncredited cameo by Woody Allen) and schemes for their next meal, even if the latter turns out to be just a puff pastry from a local bakery. Their over-acting (intentional or not) and missed cues often brings a hilarious means to an end. One reward is two unwanted tickets to a hammed-up Hamlet featuring egotistic Jeremy Burtom (Alfred Molina) a Barrymoresque drunk over-admired by his public. When Burtom and his entourage overhear A&M aping the maestro’s performance, he flies off in a rage after the pair.

The chase is on.

And it doesn’t stop until you’ve stopped laughing an hour or so later. The harried actors end up dockside asleep in a straw-filled crate and become stowaways on the S.S. Intercontinental, a Paris-bound luxury cruise ship, with their nemesis (oh no!) aboard as well. It’s a ship of fools (the film’s working title, too) where the large ensemble cast is unmasked in briskly directed bits and pieces. Mad hatters all. Quirky, manic, devious, deadly. It’s a who’s who of Alice’s wonderland and A&M get caught among them all, discovering other posers amongst the crew and human cargo. Among those along for the ride are Happy Franks (Steve Buscemi), a depressingly suicidal lounge singer, a mysterious deposed and distraught queen (Isabella Rossellini), a insidious First Mate (Tony Shalhoub) who speaks a language best described as goulash, and Meistrich (Campbell Scott), an autocratic, boot-slapping hellhound with a facial scar, nasty bridle crop, and an overzealous passion for Lily (Lili Taylor), the head stewardess who befriends puppy-dogs A&M and tries to keep them out of harm’s way. Throw in a wealthy Moorish sheik, an over-ripe tennis pro, an Italian captain, a gold-digging dowager, her wallflower daughter, a pair of fortune hunters, and a dozen other nutty characters and watch the hi-jinx develop in gloriously outrageous succession.

Tucci has a keen sense of physical and visual comedy here, and handles the talented cast with kid gloves. Many of the actors appeared in his earlier film and you get the luscious feeling that each is a richly defined piece in the film’s witty script. No one shines alone; they are brilliant together. Tucci makes imaginative use of the music track, stopping it abruptly at sudden lapses in the chase and just as quickly restarting it moments later when the hunt resumes. He makes incredibly perceptive use of sub-titles in one particular sequence (it’s VERY distinctive and VERY funny). There’s also his marvelous blocking of the cast against the pseudo-theatrical settings. It’s an overblown game of musical rooms. The movie has a histrionic feel of cycloramas and greasepaint that heightens the voyage (I never did see the ocean) while putting the cast through their frantic pacing, contrived romantic ploddings (in a funny way, of course), and sets that scream Room Service. Kudos to Art-Deco production designer Andy Jackness, director of photography Ken Kelsch, and costume designer Juliet Polcsa, all Big Night alumni and obviously just as enthusiastic in handling their chores as the rest of the cast and crew.

This is easily one of the funniest films of the year and in many a year. A laugh riot. Honest. Please, Mum, give me more!

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