The 1978 theft of Charlie Chaplin’s coffin from its rural Swiss resting place was the kind of bizarre case — equal parts absurd caper and poignant story of human desperation, escalating wildly and ending with peace restored — that you’d expect to have been the subject of at least one hefty true-crime movie. Instead, it seems to keep inspiring curious sideways riffs on history.
In 2014, French auteur Xavier Beauvois heavily fictionalized the identities and motives of the grave-robbers for his sweetly mournful “The Price of Fame,” attempting to channel some of Chaplin’s sentimental underdog spirit in lieu of factual fidelity. Yet that film was a veritable documentary compared to “Stealing Chaplin,” a broad, shaggy farce with an opening title card that claims “inspired by a true story” credentials, and a title that represents the full extent of that inspiration.
In this parallel universe, the Little Tramp was buried not in Switzerland but in an undistinguished plot in a Las Vegas cemetery. His body is taken, meanwhile, not in the 1970s but in the present day — by a bumbling fraternal duo of British conmen straight out of the Guy Ritchie playbook, which is to say in a plot hastily traced from the early Tarantino playbook. There’s nary a sliver of Chaplin’s sensibility in the mix, despite a phony beyond-the-grave voiceover and assorted quotes from the legend tossed in as haphazard intertitles.
What director Paul Tanter’s cheap and cheerful film does have going for it, however, is some genuinely sparky comic chemistry between stars Simon Phillips and Doug Phillips — not related, yet well-matched as a hopeless pair of Tweedledum-and-Tweedledumber siblings whose banter is quicker than their combined wits. Their interplay papers over some of the patches in the latter Phillips’ thinly imagined script, though there’s less to be done about the film’s variously slack, disjointed subplots and wildly uneven pacing: For a film made in honor of a silent film legend, the pleasure here is largely in the chatter.
With scant time devoted to setup or backstory, we’re left to imagine how Cal (Simon Phillips) and Terry (Doug Phillips) — two small-time crooks from London with a history of harebrained schemes — wound up in Sin City, and why exactly they owe $30,000 to one of several stock Vegas mobsters. (The debt keeps getting passed on, relay-style, as these interchangeable heavies kill each other off, faster than we can learn to tell them apart.) Bottom line is, they’re in deep trouble. How deep, exactly? Deep enough to make them dimly conclude that digging up Charlie Chaplin’s coffin and selling it on (“to Hollywood,” they vaguely reason) might solve their problems. If that sounds unlikely, well, it’s literally happened before. Nothing else that spirals from this insane decision has any such alibi of credibility — as a $100,000 reward is put up for the corpse’s safe return, setting a menagerie of Vegas lowlifes after the brothers’ unburied treasure.
What laughs the film raises derive less from its strained pileup of criminal chaos than the simple personality clash between its two lead characters. Alike in stupidity, Terry and Cal otherwise diverge in classic odd-couple ways: The former is a perma-dazed slacker, the latter a cocky, self-styled ladies’ man, whose ongoing flirtation with skeptical diner waitress Helen (Bianca Katz, appealing in a lean part) gives proceedings a welcome shot of romantic warmth. Other secondary roles and narratives fare less well, none more thanklessly than Liliana Vargas as the overworked cop on the brothers’ tail. (Her own contrasting sibling-rivalry dynamic with an off-the-rails sister feels like a stray, undeveloped script note that somehow survived the final draft.)
For all these shortcomings, “Stealing Chaplin” putters along watchably enough — at least until a calamitously compressed finale that breaks with the low-key, lackadaisical rhythm of proceedings, suddenly stuffing an entire third act into 10 ragged minutes. Perhaps appropriately for a study of such ill-conceived criminal activity, polish is in short supply here. A handful of swift Vegas aerial shots are as flashy as things get in the film’s technical package. That the film is more confident with laddish verbal warfare than with well-timed physical gags again prompts one to wonder why Chaplin is its mascot at all. A sequel, titled “Stealing Elvis,” is already in pre-production: One can only commend the filmmakers for refusing to let facts get in the way of a halfway good story.