Art curator Harry Dean (Colin Firth) hatches a plan to manipulate his boss, cantankerous billionaire Lionel Shahbandar (Alan Rickman), into acquiring a fake Monet painting. Enlisting the help of rambunctious rodeo queen PJ Puznowski (Cameron Diaz) and talented painter and lifelong friend Major Wingate (Tom Courtenay), Harry’s plan seems foolproof. That is, however, until he starts to develop feelings for PJ, causing his plan to dissever in some unexpected and challenging directions.
From a screenplay penned by the Coen Brothers, Gambit updates Sidney Carroll’s novel source material and subsequent Michael Caine-starring 1966 adaptation into a vehicle for the recently reinvented Firth. Ditching the British humour in favour of a more Americanised approach, the screenplay unfortunately fails to find a comfortable footing from the offset, merely careening forward in affliction, with an all-too hefty reliance placed on silly one-liners, slang and the various blunders that threaten to put an end to Harry’s plan.
Glimmers of hope come in the form of a German-speaking foil to Harry (Stanley Tucci is an unquestionable and formidable asset in the underwritten role) and a set piece involving the elusive Savoy hotel. But the fact that the one half-decent scenario hinges too heavily on semi-nudity and the crass, unfunny innuendos it evokes ensures that it’s a minor relief and not an overtly memorable one. It also summarises precisely the difficulties the entire film has of escaping the trappings of its highly formulaic pattern.
It may never take itself too seriously, therefore never ask too much of its audience or provide much of a threat to the better films of its ilk, but it’s too overtly silly bask in the quirky and eccentric undertones that are bubbling under the surface. It’s failure, then, can perhaps better be attributed to director Michael Hoffman’s failure to understand the films farcical nature. It’s not that Hoffman is bad per se, it’s more that he completely misjudges the films tone, delivering clunky direction and over-exposition when the opposite is needed.
For the most part, the cast are willing, though almost entirely let down by the fact their on screen personas are so underwritten and one-dimensional. Firth comes off the best in a role that enables him to exude his undeniable charm almost constantly, winning over audiences to a degree in the process. Rickman and Diaz, on the other hand, are left fighting to retain their worrying reputations in their respective roles, both of which are characters with little to no redeeming qualities and personalities that irk far more frequently than they please.
The finished product is a film with very little to appreciate or take pleasure from. With a talented cast left in the lurch by a screenplay that’s more of less a cluttered mess barely kept ablaze with one or two smirk-inducing gags (shame on you Coen Brothers) and the annoying, yet unquestionable forceful energy injected by Diaz, this is one shameful write-off that will leave you squirming in your seat from the inane title sequence to the unsightly final shot (Rickman naked, anyone?).