Buried in the end crawl of Oirish caper movie “The Actors” is a credit to “Peter O’Toole” as “generator operator” — and whether an in-joke or not, that’s exactly who this labored, desperately unfunny stab at flamboyant character comedy needs. Potentially strong cast is let down by a badly miscast Michael Caine as an aging second-rate thespian who tries scamming some dough from a bunch of inept crims. Given the dire B.O. record of Irish comedies on the U.K. mainland, best chances for the heavily advertised pic would seem to be to grab some quick passers-by on the first weekend on the strength of Caine’s name before word gets out. Outside Blighty, auds may warm more to the picture’s bland joviality, though not to its poor script.
Not even attempting an Irish accent while his fellow Brit actors lay theirs on thick, Caine plays Anthony O’Malley, a florid thespian playing a hump-backed Nazi in a 20th-century version of “Richard III” to a nightly audience in single figures. Adopting a paternal attitude toward keen young bit-player Tom (Dylan Moran), who’s desperate for a break, Tony proposes Tom should test the mettle of his commitment to the profession by acting a role in real life that contains a genuine element of danger.
Using info he’s gleaned at a bar, Tony proposes conning dubious “businessman” Barreller (Michael Gambon), who owes £50,000 ($75,000) to some associates in London. Idea is to put the squeeze on Barreller for the money through a fake phone-call, Tom to show up as the collector, and make off with the loot — which will also provide a nice retirement fund for Tony.
Tom reluctantly agrees when his apartment burns down, and for the handover adopts the geeky disguise of his sister’s loathsome b.f., a salesman called Clive (Ben Miller). Everything goes smoothly until Tom unwisely agrees to have a post-handover drink with Barreller and his gorgeous daughter, Dolores (Lena Headey), who — in a development which strains credulity early on — falls for Tom.
Barreller realizes he’s been had when a real collector comes from London, forcing Tom to adopt even more outlandish disguises, and Tony and Tom’s young niece, Mary (Abigail Iversen), to come up with elaborate variations on their original plan. Finally, London boss Magnani (Miranda Richardson) arrives to personally sort out the problem and recover her bread.
Film is mostly a showcase for the relatively unknown Moran to adopt a series of disguises — all neatly enough played — with Caine’s character relegated to second fiddle a lot of the time. The problem with the script by helmer Conor McPherson (“I Went Down”), from a story by Neil Jordan, is that there’s absolutely no sense of comic timing and, even worse, an assumption by the writer that the basic premise is funny on its own terms.
Case in point is the play in which the two thesps are acting, scenes from which pepper the main action. This is a production that makes “Springtime for Hitler” look professional, but by the third reel or so these segs barely raise a smile. With an actor of O’Toole’s personality in the Caine role, the film might just about have succeeded; but Caine lacks the florid, theatrical heft to turn already weak dialogue into something that’s at least colorfully entertaining. A last-reel attempt at some pathos in his character falls flat.
Moran is good in the various disguises but lackluster out of them, while Gambon, Headey and especially Richardson just seem to be punching the clock. Some of the best lines in fact fall to Iversen, who more than holds her own against the adults as know-all 9-year-old Mary. In a device that looks like an afterthought, the whole film is framed as her reminiscence of “Tony and uncle Tom,” with five chapter headings drawn in a school exercise book.
Lensing by Seamus McGarvey on Dublin locations is unsuitably dark and ochry in interior and night scenes, while Michael Nyman’s music fails to leaven the proceedings. Overall, production values are just OK.