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After his magnificent, offbeat BIG NIGHT, writer-director Stanley Tucci reunites that movie’s cast (including Tony Shalhoub, Isabella Rossellini, Alison Janney, Campbell Scott, Oliver Platt, to name a few) in another offbeat triumph. Intentionally played as an hommage to slapstick and farce, THE IMPOSTORS finds two over-zealous, out-of-work actors, Arthur and Maurice (Tucci and Platt) offending an overrated thespian, Sir Jeremy Burtom (Alfred Molina), fleeing from his wrath and ending up on the very ship that he is taking a vacation cruise on.
From its opening hommage to the silent movie, THE IMPOSTORS shows Tucci’s willingness to take chances: Arthur and Maurice engage in staged battle at an unsuspecting streetside café, Maurice opting to be “killed” by Arthur, even though – we learn in the next scene – that it was, in fact, Arthur’s “turn to die.” One twitch on the side of non-conviction and the delicate humor of this tableau would have fallen flat. Tucci pulls it off directorially and comedically.
Ultimately, “chance-taking” is a double-edged sword, and teetering on that blade will get you either lauded as a genius or slice your bollocks off.
The Damoclean blade grimly alerts us to its presence many times, but is ultimately stayed by Tucci’s deft comedic hand. For instance, editing seems strained in a sequence which sees Arthur and Maurice seeking a room on the ocean liner to conceal themselves; through this device, new characters are introduced to the mélange, some colorfully realized whilst others float wraith-like through the plot – until Tucci’s clever storytelling unites all these disparate strands at the Captain’s Ball, when a character bellows “Impostor!” and we see how each of the players may be guilty of that accusation, all of whom flee at the indictment, which is, of course, not even remotely aimed at them.Alfred Molina, scenery-chewing like Tim Roth on crank, is that bellowing character, his dexterity at mutton-headed slapstick a revelation; Steve Buscemi as the suicidal jazz singer; Billy Connolly shines as the aggressively-gay tennis pro; Tony Shalhoub is overboard as the ambiguously-foreign terrorist First Mate – but no one can upstage the singularly uproarious performance by Campbell Scott, opting to veer off the grid completely in his rendition of Nazi purser, Meistrich. And there is even a sensational Woody Allen cameo that captures the essence of Allen – love and hate. But below the love, hate. But below that hate, love. Love-hate. Hate-love. Below, love. Above – hate. Below that, love. Above that–
Though Tucci’s script stoops to Stooge-like pratfalls at times, he stays ahead of the Great Unwashed’s pedestrian sensibilities by embellishing it with brilliant minutiae, sprinkled liberally: the bedraggled shot of Molina during an intermission of his HAMLET and his melodramatic apology to the theater audience, replete with crooked wig and burp; Platt’s mindless, drunken soliloquy, including dialogue which seems way off-script (“Boozy boozy boooy – sucky farty boooy – I poke you I poke you I poke you!”); and then there’s Campbell Scott, who arguably steals the movie, whether entering the frame and making the soundtrack needle-scratch, or propositioning the Social Director (a beautifully “Brick House” Lili Taylor), or impassively telling the ship’s discomfited detective, Marco (played with witless Euro abandon by Matt McGrath), that learning how to kill people, “is not that hard”; Shalhoub’s passionate radio call to his lover, including more seemingly off-script entreaties (“Touch me pure! Touch me good! Touch me hard!”); Connolly’s man-wooing of Platt with seductive scenarios of wrestling naked on the steps of the Acropolis, “That’s where we’ll wrestle, my semi-Grecian lad – that’s where I’ll make a man of ye!”
And the joie de vivre of the last dance sequence is an utterly contagious masterpiece of the director’s self-awareness, where the full cast, to the strains of Louis Armstrong’s cover of Skokiaan, synchronize a dance routine through the ship set, off the set and into the surrounding studio (where we see the crew, camera tracks, light rigging, false walls), and then out of the studio itself! Almost a sly wink that this movie itself is an “impostor.” Not real life – just entertainment: see? All these characters who were adversaries are now hamming it up together! Another delicate touch which could have easily gone awry. These are not “unknowns” peopling this film – any one of these well-respected actors could have mutinied Stanley Tucci’s decision to unify them in this last, ridiculously-genius dance number. Instead, they joyously partake of the bunny-hopping and arm-waving like a coterie of first-year acting students with nothing to lose, in so doing, beautifully rounding off the film. Tucci’s knowing nudge to movie viewers on many levels, sealing his brilliance as a director willing to take those offbeat chances. One of those rare “Gee-I-wish-I’d-thought-of-that” moments in film. Here too, we are indulged with the prominent soundtrack, which lent itself perfectly to complementing the film’s action with its noticeably-distinct, recurring themes to signify melodrama, suspense, romance and slapstick.
Is it just me, or is it obvious that Tucci and Platt’s real life first names echo those of a past generation’s legendary comedy team? Stanley tips his glass at Oliver to utter the film’s last lines: “To life, and its many deaths.”