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Review: 'Impostors' pretends to be a funny film

Web posted on: Thursday, October 22, 1998 2:15:00 PM EDT

From reviewer Paul Tatara

(CNN) -- When I was in college, I once signed up for an acting course. I figured I was already taking in as much information as I could about movies and writing, so why not learn a little bit more about the other end of the filmmaking equation? My enthusiasm for the craft lasted about two weeks before I got outta there. Actually, that's not really true -- my enthusiasm for actors was what shriveled away. The course was fairly interesting, and the professor was a nice enough guy, but I thought I would explode internally if I had to spend any more time around would-be performers. I might have stuck with it if I'd been allowed to belt one or two of 'em every now and then, but this olive branch was never offered up.

You see, it wasn't enough for these guys to simply chuckle at a joke during a casual conversation; they had to be world-class, bend over and guffaw laughers. The best laugher in the world. It wasn't enough for them jump a little if there was a sudden loud noise; they had to whirl around theatrically and shriek. It wasn't even enough for them to simply enter a room and sit down. They had to "make an entrance," then hop into their seats like they were about to race a Ferrari at Le Mans.

I did not like them, Sam I Am. I did not like those acting hams.

That's why Stanley Tucci's new movie, "The Impostors," is exactly what I don't want to see -- a love letter to over-doing it as a way of life.

'An awful misfire'

Set in the 1930s, it follows two ham-bone, unemployed actors named Arthur and Maurice (Tucci and Oliver Platt), as they invent -- or fall into -- situations that require them to don costumes and do "bits of business" and hide in closets while the man who wants to kill them is hanging up his coat.

Most of it takes place on a cruise ship full of hoity-toity characters who run down hallways and do shtick like it"s the only way to get into heaven. It's an awful misfire, especially in light of Tucci's enjoyable, critically well-received first film, "Big Night." "The Impostors" is more reminiscent of a weak "Three Stooges" installment than the Marx Brothers farce it so obviously wants to be. Hell, forget the Marx Brothers, a lot of this stuff drags on like you're watching the Dead End Kids. And, boy, does Tucci let his talented cast go for it ... to a degree that almost completely camouflages their considerable gifts.

Listen to who's in this thing, then imagine how misguided it would have to be to blow the way that it does: You've got the aforementioned Tucci (who wrote, directed and stars) and Platt; Alfred Molina as a hack Shakespearean actor; Campbell Scott as a German steward who comports himself like a Nazi; Lili Taylor as the unwilling apple of Campbell's eye; Billy Connolly as a gay tennis star reminiscent of Bill Tilden; Steve Buscemi as a low-rung Sinatra wannabe; Isabella Rossellini as a dethroned queen; and Tony Shalhoub as a ship captain/terrorist. Geez, Woody Allen even shows up (uncredited) as a failed playwright.

These folks generally know exactly what they're doing, but it's obvious that Tucci just let them run wild while everybody gathered around the video monitor biting their hands so as to not chuckle at their dazzling, actorly exuberance. Tucci and Platt's characters have offended Molina, so, after getting chased all over the place by his henchman, they wind up as stowaways on the ship. As luck would have it, Molina is also on board, leading to all kinds of hijinks and hullabaloo. Several sequences are shot as virtual silent movie routines, with such small acts as stirring a cup of tea turning into studied, almost pantomimed displays of thespian technique.

Headless chickens

With that huge cast of characters, it's not difficult to guess that the pace will slowly accelerate until everybody is running around like headless chickens, and that's exactly what happens. A handful of the actors (especially Connolly, Scott, and Allen, who's very funny in a rare role written by somebody else) have amusing moments, but they're few and far between. Most of it is an attempt at screwball comedy without that form's dazzling wordplay or precisely-timed physical comedy.

It's not an easy kind of humor to pull off, though it seems deceptively simple when somebody like Cary Grant does it (or a director like Howard Hawks conducts it for us.) More than anything else, "The Impostors" generates more respect for the old masters. These guys just need to calm down and quit slapping themselves on the back, regardless of whether or not the self-congratulation is supposed to be satirical.

"The Impostors" is a major step backward for Tucci as a director, but he's a talented guy and will probably score again once the performing high recedes. There's four letter words and sexual situations, though it's all harmless enough. Buscemi melting down and weeping on stage while trying to croon a ballad is a rare, unexpected high point. "Love Boat" where art thou? Rated R. 102 minutes.

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