The farcical "The Impostors" begins on a high of comic giddiness, but the air all too quickly seeps out of its balloon.

The farcical “The Impostors” begins on a high of comic giddiness, but the air all too quickly seeps out of its balloon. Acted by a splendid cast with a degree of wit and sophistication that is in unfortunate short supply in the script, Stanley Tucci’s first solo directorial outing after collaborating with Campbell Scott on the delectable “Big Night” works overtime to replicate the fun of ’30s Hollywood comedies, but serves to demonstrate once again that the classics are hard to match. Fox Searchlight release looks like a passable specialized commercial item at best.

Laurel and Hardyish title sequence represents a delectable example of escalating conflict expressed in physical comedy, creating great expectations that Tucci is picking up where he left off in “Big Night” in terms of his auspicious helming career. Two men, sitting in close proximity at a lovely outdoor cafe, begin by irritating each other in small ways. Their tempers are raised to a fever pitch when a woman comes between them, and they eventually come to blows, with one evidently killing the other before fleeing. Scene is executed with the lovely, slowly building precision of a good silent film.

It comes as little surprise, however, when the violent episode is exposed to have been a ruse. The men in question, Maurice (Oliver Platt) and Arthur (Tucci), are actors, struggling in New York during the Depression to get a leg up any way they can. Subsequent scenes also generate some decent laughs, as the fellows do some acting exercises, perform an audition for a theater director (an uncredited Woody Allen in a nifty cameo) and engage in a row at a pastry shop to get something to eat.

Turning point comes upon their seeing a Broadway performance of “Hamlet” starring a declamatory ham actor, Jeremy Burtom (Alfred Molina). When Burtom overhears Maurice drunkenly insulting him in a bar afterward, the chase is on, with the boys ultimately taking refuge in a box that, by the time they wake up, has been placed on board a luxury ocean liner about to sail for France.

But as soon as the film reaches its main stage, the ship, you can practically feel the wind go out of its sails. As Maurice and Arthur disguise themselves as stewards and try to avoid the still-incensed Burtom, many members of the passenger list and crew are introduced: There is the Nazi-like staff overlord (Scott), who presses his attentions upon the head stewardess (Lili Taylor), who in turn is smitten with the ship’s handsome detective (Matt McGrath); a fanatic for Greek wrestling (Billy Connolly) with an unsurpassed obsession with the male physique; a deposed European queen (Isabella Rossellini); a scheming couple looking for a score (Richard Jenkins and Allison Janney); a penniless widow (Dana Ivey) hoping to reel in a rich catch, and her depressed daughter (Hope Davis), who offers emotional support to a suicidal lounge singer (Steve Buscemi); a sheik (Teagle F. Bougere) with a passionate attachment to sentimental French songs, and a first mate (Tony Shalhoub) who is a secret revolutionary with a plan to blow up the liner.

From the first shipboard pratfall, however, it’s clear that the timing in the group scenes, unlike those with the two men, is woefully off. Tucci’s script doesn’t go beyond inventing a single agenda for each character and, in some cases, forcing them to adopt a disguise — hence the title. But whereas a good farce should build with interlocking complications, this one just remains a collection of independent actions that don’t intersect in productive ways. Attempts at witty one-liners and ripostes lack sparkle as well.

From a stylistic point of view, pic is undermined by a hand-held camera style that is antithetical to the theatrical base that should provide solid grounding to frantic comedy. Ken Kelsch’s mobile camera tries to keep up with the crazed characters as they make their way through the hallways, staterooms and public spaces, but filmmakers should have taken their cue from the ’30s comedies being emulated and kept the camera virtually static while letting the actors do the running around.

There are isolated laughs along the way, but fewer as the film progresses, and by the end it’s evident that Tucci’s ambitious attempt to recapture the past glories of Deco-drenched, class-oriented farce has simply missed the mark. One is left savoring the individual enthusiasm of many of the actors — Con-nolly’s glee in the masculine form, Molina’s Barrymoresque ego and rage at perceived slights, Davis’ sudden transformation from forlorn wallflower to life-affirming romantic, Scott’s scar-faced, by-the-book S&M freak — while regretting that the material lets them sink anyway. And there is no doubt that the skillful Platt and Tucci could have carried off such an exercise had the thesps been channeled properly.

Andrew Jackness’ production design and Juliet Polcsa’s costumes are constantly diverting delights to the eye, and Gary DeMichele’s score is spry.

The Impostors

Production

A Fox Searchlight release of a First Cold Press production. Produced by Beth Alexander, Stanley Tucci. Executive producer, Jonathan Filley. Directed, written by Stanley Tucci.

Crew

Camera (Technicolor), Ken Kelsch; editor, Suzy Elmiger; music, Gary DeMichele; music supervisor, Margot Core; production designer, Andrew Jackness; art director, Chris Shriver; set decorator, Catherine Davis; artistic consultant, Andrei Belgrader; costume designer, Juliet Polcsa; sound (Dolby), William Sarokin; assistant director, Justin Muller; casting, Ellen Lewis. Reviewed at Cannes Film Festival (Un Certain Regard), May 18, 1998. Running time: 101 MIN.

With

Maurice - Oliver Platt Arthur - Stanley Tucci Sheik - Teagle F. Bougere Pancetta Leaky - Elizabeth Bracco Happy Franks - Steve Buscemi Sparks - Billy Connolly Captain - Allan Corduner Emily - Hope Davis Mrs. Essendine - Dana Ivey Maxine (Maxi) - Allison Janney Johnny (Frenchman) - Richard Jenkins Marco - Matt McGrath Jeremy Burtom - Alfred Molina Queen (Veiled Woman) - Isabella Rossellini Meistrich - Campbell Scott First Mate - Tony Shalhoub Lily - Lili Taylor Bandleader - Lewis J. Stadlen Theater Director - Woody Allen

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