This loose remake of a 1966 film of the same name – that starred Shirley MacLaine, Michael Caine and Herbert Lom – has had a curiously long journey to the screen for a comedy, spending fourteen years stranded in numerous stages of pre-production. During that time, various talents were either attached to the project or expressed interest, including Aaron Sorkin, Alexander Payne, Hugh Grant, Robert Altman, Doug Liman, Reese Witherspoon and Ben Kingsley. Circa 2003, Joel and Ethan Coen, apparently looking for some rewrite work in between films, submitted a draft that supposedly reworked the film considerably. Though they have not directed the end result, Michael Hoffman having taken care of that, marketing material for Gambit has been centred on the film having been written by the Coen brothers.
The timing of the pair’s script submission happens to coincide with the production of their two worst efforts, Intolerable Cruelty and The Ladykillers, the latter also a comedy remake. While those two films were misfires that still retained recognisable Coen mannerisms, there is virtually nothing in Gambit’s dialogue or rhythms that make it feel like it could have come from those writers. Their name is retained, but one hopes the screenplay was just brutally disfigured during that lengthy stay in development hell; the possibility that this final draft really was their handiwork is a frankly depressing notion. Gambit is not just a bad comedy, it’s a catastrophic disaster.
Colin Firth plays introverted art curator Harry Deane, who supervises the collection of an unpleasant businessman named Lionel Shahbandar (Alan Rickman). Tired of being bullied, Deane decides to pull a trick on his boss, getting his talented, painting-forging friend Wingate (Tom Courtenay) to fake a supposedly lost Monet painting believed to reside in the US. With the assistance of a feisty Texan girl (Cameron Diaz), they stage a phony discovery and persuade Shahbandar to buy it. Also in the mix is Stanley Tucci as a German art expert brought in by Shahbander, who could mess up the plan.
From its poor man’s Pink Panther opening credits sequence to Firth’s attempt at Clouseau-style physical comedy, Gambit so desperately pines to ape fondly remembered caper farces of the 60s. Instead of jokes and any sort of inspired slapstick set-ups, the film has stick-thin situations stretched to achingly inordinate running times, and the belief that comedy gold can be found through Diaz simply having a shrill voice and personality, or the mere sight of Firth parading around sans trousers in a posh hotel for twenty minutes.The film’s attempts at humour – which of course also involve plays on racial stereotypes, exaggerated accents, fart jokes and penis euphemisms – are so broad that not a single attempt ever actually hits a successful note.
This misfiring extends to the actors, with Courtenay being the only one of the stars to not actively embarrass himself, perhaps partially due to comparatively minimal screen time. Firth is miscast, Rickman is on mugging, grimacing form, Tucci gives perhaps a career low performance, and while Diaz has possibly been worse elsewhere, she’s still on horrible, charmless form here. Bar Courtenay, everyone hams it up but there’s no wit or invention in the material to elevate the film above being a perpetually damn squib. Gambit is a completely mirthless, languid chore to watch, though unforgettable in that it induces so many questions as to how a batch of oft-reliable talents could produce something so utterly free of entertainment value.
Gambit is now available on Region 2 DVD and Blu-ray. A North American theatrical release has yet to be confirmed.