Middling in every respect, “Gambit” is a stilted caper comedy that few of its alumni will feature prominently on their resumes. Only vaguely similar, plot-wise, to the pleasant same-named 1966 trifle showcasing Michael Caine and Shirley MacLaine, this Coen brothers-scripted curio, helmed by Michael Hoffman (“The Last Station”), stars Colin Firth as an art curator deploying Cameron Diaz in a sting set mostly in Blighty, where the pic opens wide Nov. 21. Stateside release details are still pending, and B.O. prospects look tricky despite the names attached, but the pic should filch some coin in ancillary.
“Gambit” is truly the sort of film best viewed on the back seat of a plane, where thin recycled air and poor-quality headphones could at least excuse its inability to elicit laughs. Although all the trappings of a comedy are present — an insistently jocular soundtrack, setpieces involving farting, hoity-toity types and missing trousers, and near-racist depictions of gurning Asian characters — it’s as if someone sucked nearly all the humorous oxygen out of the project, leaving nothing but inert, punchline-free setups.
Advance word has made much of the fact that this is the first film the Coens have written but not directed themselves since 1985’s “Crimewave.” However, auds drawn by the siblings’ name (touted prominently in the U.K. publicity materials) will be hard-pressed to discern their authorial signature here, apart from the script’s fondness for wackily exotic names, a few stretches of showily overwritten dialogue and a slightly misanthropic streak that’s been displayed with more sharpness and flair in their other films.
From the animated credits sequence onward, this long-gestating passion project for producer Mike Lobell feels much more rooted in the sensibility of those affably flyweight Euro-set crime movies of the 1960s, such as Ronald Neame’s original “Gambit,” the first “Pink Panther” (1963) pic, “The Italian Job” (1969), or indeed nearly anything with Herbert Lom. The national stereotypes are so ludicrously broad, they almost cheerfully evoke an earlier, less PC era when Brits were nearly always stuffy, prissy or overbearing, Americans were practical-minded vulgarian louts, and the Japanese were duplicitous cheats hiding behind polite smiles and lost-in-translation insults. If this was the Coens’ idea of funny, either they’re playing a much slyer metatextual game than appears on the surface, or something went very wrong along the way.
The plot revolves around a scheme hatched by mild-mannered art expert Harry Deane (Firth), who, with the help of a forger known only as the Major (Tom Courtenay), plans to con his ferociously rude billionaire boss, Shabandar (Alan Rickman), into buying a forged Monet painting. In order to pull off the grift, Deane must recruit PJ Puznowski (Cameron Diaz), a Texan chicken-plucker and part-time rodeo star whose grandfather had a possible connection to the painting’s last known whereabouts. Naturally, things don’t go according to the plan Deane has in his head, shown in a fantasy sequence that keeps PJ from uttering a word of dialogue for roughly 10 minutes after she’s introduced, a strange device stolen straight from the 1966 version.
At least that earlier film, for all its daftness, had a certain tautness of structure. This one, whose plot is quite different despite also involving Englishmen with art-fraud ambitions, is all over the place, internally illogical above and beyond the call of slapstick farce, and willfully flat in execution. Only one scene generates real yuks, a fine bit of nonsense in which Deane and PJ argue in front of two desk clerks at the Savoy, their every line misunderstood to have a smuttier meaning than they actually intend. It’s almost as if everything else had been built around that one scene, but never thought through with as much care.
It’s certainly Firth and Diaz’s finest moment in a film that neither stretches their talents nor flatters their reputations, and their lack of chemistry (Diaz sparks much more satisfyingly with Rickman) drains what little rooting interest the characters’ putative romance might have generated. Helming and tech credits are likewise lackluster, if serviceable.