A bright and breezy London-set romantic comedy about two grifters and the gal who floats into their orbit, "Shooting Fish" is an unashamed crowd-pleaser weakened by a third act that suffers from plot overload.

A bright and breezy London-set romantic comedy about two grifters and the gal who floats into their orbit, “Shooting Fish” is an unashamed crowd-pleaser weakened by a third act that suffers from plot overload. Though the charm is distinctly manufactured, pic proved an audience favorite at its Edinburgh fest premiere screenings and looks set to swim to warm waters worldwide, though not as hot as, say, “Four Weddings and a Funeral,” whose ether it most closely shares.

Heavily sold at Cannes this year, where it was one of the few buzz titles in the market, “Fish” goes out wide in the U.K. in mid-October and early next year in the U.S. through Fox Searchlight.

Picture has many of the trademarks of the previous production by the Gruber Brothers — writer-director Stefan Schwartz and writer-producer Richard Holmes, a former comedy act — the 1992 British road movie “Soft Top Hard Shoulder”: handsome widescreen lensing (again by Henry Braham), a propulsive music/song track, mildly eccentric characters based on Brit stereotypes and an overall romantic, upbeat, agenda-free feel. Though it’s set in the present, “Shooting Fish” also has a slight retro ’60s flavor, recalling the energy and color of the era and with the same mix of can-do youngsters and upper-crust English characters that rapidly disappeared in the ’70s.

Dylan (Dan Futterman) and Jez (Stuart Townsend) are two twentyish con artists united by their backgrounds as orphans. Dylan is a smooth-talking Yank who’s a wiz with numbers and is on the run from some unsavory characters in the States; Jez is an English techno-nerd with all the charisma of a penlight running on low. They’re first seen in mid-scam selling a phony voice-recognition computer, aided by Georgie (Kate Beckinsale), hired as a secretary for the job.

Halfway through the con, which ends with the trio’s abrupt departure, Georgie realizes Dylan and Jez aren’t the businessman and scientist they seem to be. But then neither is she a secretary: Actually a med school student, she’s way above their class and locked into a forthcoming marriage to a twitty, horse-owning aristo (Dominic Mafham). Still, intrigued by their charm, and the converted gas-storage tank they use as a home, she forms a loose friendship with the duo; on their side, however, the relationship already has distinct non-platonic possibilities.

Opening 20 minutes, including the computer con, are impressive, with nifty cutting, likable characters and an exhilarating sense of danger in the pair’s close calls. Story neatly segues into a smaller scam, involving attic insulation, plus an elaborate revenge on some lowlifes they’d encountered earlier, with Schwartz and Holmes’ script neatly keeping the triangular relationship with Georgie on the boil as well. The fly in that particular ointment is that her fiance’s upper-class advantages are starting to wear thin compared with the lads’ charm, even though they still keep the full truth from her.

It’s around the hour mark, when Dylan and Jez are caught and thrown in jail, and Georgie is required to save their stash as well as extricate herself from her fiance’s double-dealing, that the souffle starts to go a little flat. Aside from the fact that there’s enough plot packed into the final 40 minutes to fuel a whole movie, and an extraneous thread about orphans is introduced, much of the action whistles by at such speed that it’s only half comprehensible on a first viewing and under-exploits its comedic possibilities. Compared with the first two acts, which have a natural flow and an easy balance between character and story, the extended third act reps an unsettling shift of rhythm.

Dominating the early going is Futterman (Robin Williams’ son in “The Birdcage”), with the voice of Jeff Goldblum, the smiling eyes of Richard Gere and all the smartest lines. But both Beckinsale (“Cold Comfort Farm”), in an incredibly laid-back perf as Georgie, and Townsend slowly draw level with gawkier, off-center playing. In that respect, it becomes a genuinely three-way story rather than mere buddy movie, with the background sketched by an assortment of reliable British thesps.

Though the script never makes a convincing case for the lads as ’90s Robin Hoods, it’s restlessly inventive, with a pleasant, rather than rib-cracking, humor and likable touch of naivete. Several throwaway jibes and refs may go over non-Brits’ heads, including one aimed at Andrew Lloyd Webber and the music used for a flashback showing how Dylan and Jez met. Tech credits are strong down the line, drawing the most from the reported $6 million tab.

Shooting Fish

British

Production

An Entertainment Film Distributors (in U.K.)/Fox Searchlight (in U.S.) release of a Winchester Films presentation of a Gruber Brothers production, in association with the Arts Council of England and Tomboy Films. (International sales: Winchester, London.) Produced by Richard Holmes, Glynis Murray. Executive producer, Gary Smith. Co-executive producers, Graham Hampson-Silk, Chris Craib. Co-producer, Neil Peplow. Directed by Stefan Schwartz. Screenplay, Schwartz, Richard Holmes.

Crew

Camera (Technicolor, Panavision widescreen), Henry Braham; editor, Alan Strachan; music, Stanislas Syrewicz; music supervision, Ivan Chandler; production design, Max Gottlieb; art direction, Sue Ferguson; costume design, Stewart Meachem; sound (Dolby Digital), Simon Clark; associate producer, Lesley McNeil; assistant director, Simon Hinkly; casting, Sarah Beardsall. Reviewed at Warner Village West End 5, London, July 23, 1997. (In Edinburgh Film Festival.) Running time: 109 MIN.

With

Dylan ..... Dan Futterman Jez ..... Stuart Townsend Georgie ..... Kate Beckinsale Floss ..... Claire Cox Roger ..... Dominic Mafham Mr. Stratton-Luce ..... Nickolas Grace Mr. Gilzean ..... Peter Capaldi Mrs. Cummins ..... Annette Crosbie Principal ..... Jane Lapotaire Mrs. Ross ..... Phyllis Logan Mr. Collyns ..... Nicholas Woodeson Mr. Ray ..... Ralph Ineson
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