The Film: Dirty Rotten Scoundrels (1988)

The Principals: Steve Martin, Michael Caine, Glenne Headly, and Ian “Emperor Palpatine” McDiarmid. Directed by Frank Oz.

The Premise: Lawrence Jamieson (Caine) is a suave con-artist operating out of the French Riviera, where he romances and then tricks gullible women into giving him money to support fictional political causes. For a con-artist, he’s actually giving these women something exciting in their lives. The same can’t be said for Freddy Benson (Martin), a goonish gigolo making small time plays through the region. After the two cross paths, and Freddy recognizes Lawrence as a fellow conman, Lawrence agrees to educate Freddy in the ways of the classy big con, in an attempt to nullify him. So Freddy is given a crash course in high society, as the two proceed to bilk money out of susceptible women. Things kick into higher gear after the two men make a bet over Janet Colgate (Headly), a wealthy heiress. The first to successfully squeeze money out of her, has to leave the lucrative area forever. But Janet’s naive and genuine kindness starts to give Lawrence second thoughts.

Is It Good: While the very definition of “light comedy,” this is nonetheless an extremely funny movie. The script by Dale Launer, Stanley Shapiro, and Paul Henning is top-notch farce, with some nice sharp dialogue and fun set-pieces, but it is also the sort of script that could easily have turned into an obnoxious mess with the wrong director and cast. Fortunately the film had Frank Oz helming it, at the height of his game (between Little Shop of Horrors and What About Bob?). After years with the Muppets, Oz had a great grasp of how to stage and pace farce, which is a style of comedy that I think most American filmmakers take for granted as the easiest form of comedy (this is why so many American farces turn out awful). Of course, this is the sort of film in which the direction often appears invisible, as it should (though Oz does have a few great gags built around camera moves). The cast is inherently going to get the lion’s share of credit. Which isn’t to say that is undeserving.

Oz’s grasp of farce could only take the film so far if Lawrence or Freddy didn’t work as characters. If you’ve seen the film, just imagine it being remade now starring Rupert Everett and Dane Cook. It is the chemistry between Martin and Caine that makes this film worth remembering 20+ years later. Martin has the showier role. He’s the idiot and the asshole. The one learning, and thus humorously botching, the ropes. And he gets the two best show-off gags of the film: Ruprecht (a mentally challenged character Lawrence and Freddy utilize in their cons) and the psychosomatically crippled and wheel-chair bound soldier persona he takes on to con Janet. The scene in which Janet has “inspired” Freddy to learn to walk again features some Steve Martin psychical comedy at its best. And Ruprecht is just a hair away from being too ridiculous to be funny, but Martin hits a gratifying sweet spot with his performance that makes the Ruprecht scenes stupid brilliance (especially for younger viewers).

Caine has the subdued role in this duo, and is thus doing most of the heavy lifting. He has less to work with, and is generally playing straightman to Martin. A lesser actor can get lost in such a part, turning into something of a sidekick to the funnier actor. But this is Michael Caine. He doesn’t get lost in any part. The fact that he often manages to be funnier than Martin while doing his straightman duties is essentially why this film works like it does.

Then there is the criminally forgotten Glenne Headly, possibly the most unlikely sex symbol of the 80’s (at least for me). Quirky-cute, but not cloying, Headly has the thankless task in the story of existing solely for the purposes of Martin and Caine’s characters. She has a reacting role, with no real subplot of her own. Yet she manages to shine, squeaking in her own laughs here and there.

Is It Worth A Look: It’s not one of the great comedic films of all time, but it is quite funny and it goes down easy. This is definitely one of Martin’s best non-absurdist comedy roles.

Random Anecdote: Though the credits do not officially say so, the film is a remake of a 1964 film also written by Stanley Shapiro called Bedtime Story, starring David Niven, Marlon Brandon, and Shirley Jones in essentially the exact same plot.