Wednesday, December 31, 2014

Dirty, Rotten Scoundrels (1988) ****1/2

You'd be hard-pressed to find a movie from the '80s that has aged better than “Dirty, Rotten Scoundrels” or that is more fun. The film is a comedy classic, but I hadn't watched it in years. It popped up on Netflix, so I had to press “Play,” and I wasn't disappointed. If anything, the movie has improved with age. Steve Martin and Michael Caine are in perfect form, each contributing his own comic style. Caine's dry, British wit and Martin's goofy, physical comedy perfectly balance each other, and then they are spiced up nicely by the addition of Glenne Headly as the ingenue they try to swindle.

Caine plays Lawrence, a well-dressed smooth-talker who seduces wealthy women by claiming to be the exiled prince of a small, embattled country. Once he has bedded them and told them the story of his brave, resistance fighters, these women tend to foist money and valuables on him to support his valiant fighters. It's nice work if you can get it, and the scams maintain Lawrence in a beautiful ocean-side estate and a genteel lifestyle in the south of France.

The genteel part of Lawrence's life is threatened when Steve Martin's Freddy wanders into town. Freddy is an uncultured, uncouth, small-time con artist. His presence on Lawrence's home turf threatens to poison the waters for Lawrence's future schemes. Freddy has to go, but one scheme after another fails to hustle him out of town. The two finally wind up in a bet over who can first con money out of Janet (Headly), whom they believe to be a wealthy heiress. Janet, however, turns out to be other than she seems.

Long-con movies (where a con-man sets up an elaborate plot to cheat another con-man) are a favorite of mine, and “Dirty, Rotten Scoundrels” is one of the best. Even though it's actually more of a comedy, the multi-layered swindles are delicious, and the people who get cheated always deserve it. (It's worth noting that the women Lawrence habitually cheats are almost exclusively the unfaithful wives of wealthy men.) I can't say that this is Steve Martin's finest movie, because I think “Roxanne” deserves that honor. It's even more dangerous to try to pick a single best film out of Michael Caine's imposing career. Nonetheless, I think this film should fit into a Top 5 for both actors, and for Glenne Headly as well. It's a comedy classic, and even if you've seen it before, you should watch it again. You won't feel cheated.

4.5 stars out of 5

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