“Revenge is a work of art.”
Director: Michael Hoffman
Cast: Colin Firth, Cameron Diaz, Alan Rickman
Synopsis: An art curator decides to seek revenge on his abusive boss by conning him into buying a fake Monet, but his plan requires the help of an eccentric and unpredictable Texas rodeo queen.
The 1966 movie of which this is a remake had Harry Dean (Michael Caine) hiring Eurasian waitress Shirley Maclaine to help him steal a statue of an Asian princess from billionaire Lionel Shahbandar (Herbert Lom). Caine’s character was a career criminal, and Maclaine was a dead ringer for Shahbandar’s deceased wife. In the 2012 version, written by Ethan and Joel Coen, Harry Dean is played by the much less abrasive Colin Firth, and is an art expert heartlessly bullied and derided by Shahbandar (Alan Rickman) who is a ruthless businessman. In revenge for all the indignities heaped upon him by Shahbandar, Harry determines to con him into paying $12 million for a worthless copy of a priceless work of art, and enlists the aid of Texas rodeo queen, P. J. Puznowski (Cameron Diaz). Harry’s change of job from criminal to put-upon worker thus enables us to both identify with and root for a criminal transformed into victim, while the change of nationality of Diaz’s character overcomes the need to cast a Eurasian actress in the role who would undoubtedly have only a fraction of the box office clout of Diaz or — God forbid — use make-up to transform a white actress into an Asian one. Such is the commercial imperative of movies made in 2012…
Harry’s plan to fleece the odious Shahbandar is played out in all its intricate perfection for P. J. and the audience as he offers her a payment of $500,000 for her part in the plot, but the reality plays out a little less smoothly. For a start, Shahbandar refuses to react to Harry’s carefully planned ploys in the way intended, so that our hero is repeatedly forced to amend his plans accordingly. These changes in his plans include having to install P. J. in a room at the Savoy, which costs Harry an arm and a leg. And the fact that Shahbandar takes a shine to P. J. makes things even more complicated.
Gambit is an enjoyable enough comedy once it gets going, although its reliance on old-fashioned farce is surprising. For example, Harry spends an extended amount of time wandering around the Savoy without his trousers and climbs out of hotel windows and onto narrow ledges to avoid being discovered not once but twice. He makes a fairly insipid hero, but the Coens at least appear to realise and acknowledge this by refraining from having him and P. J. embark on a romance that just wouldn’t have been believable. And although, as written, Firth is ideal for the part, it feels as if it’s the character, rather than the actor, who isn’t right for the movie. Diaz also struggles to convince in a role that is never really fleshed out beyond the requirements of the plot, although she gives it her best shot, and still looks good out of her clothes despite having now clicked past that dreaded ‘40’ marker that is supposed to herald the immediate decline of a Hollywood actress’s career. Of the three leads, it’s Alan Rickman as Shahbandar who emerges as the class act, effortlessly creating a smoothly hissable bad guy, even though he is never painted in as bad a light in reality as he is in Harry’s fantasies.
Gambit is an inoffensive enough remake of a middling 1960s comedy that makes good use of its star names (including an under-used Tom Courtenay as Harry’s partner-in-crime), but which was never going to break any box office records.