Re-watching Dirty Rotten Scoundels (1988) last month was an interesting experience for me. I had seen it once a couple of years after its theatrical release, and I was surprised how much of it I remembered the second time around. Apart from making me unjustifiably proud of my memory, it also reminded me that once upon a time comedies had interesting stories and characters, not just funny actors.
Michael Caine plays Lawrence Jameson, a suave Englishman living in the French resort town of Beaumont-Sur-Mer. Jameson makes a very comfortable living bilking naïve female tourists. He poses as the exiled ruler of a foreign kingdom raising money for freedom fighters.
On a train, Lawrence watches Freddy Benson (Steve Martin) con a woman into a free lunch with a sob story about his sick grandmother. Worried that this crude American grifter will poison the waters in Beaumont-Sur-Mer, Lawrence tricks Freddy into leaving town. After meeting one of Lawrence’s victims on the plane, Freddy figures out the con and threatens to expose him unless Lawrence agrees to teach him the art of big money conning.
did you notice Emperor Palpatine (Ian McDiarmid) as the butler?
After working together for awhile, the two make a bet: whoever cons their next mark for $50,000 stays in Beaumont-Sur-Mer while the other leaves town forever. Their target is “Soap Queen” Janet Colgate (Glenne Headley). Lawrence and Freddy go to ridiculous lengths to close the deal with the Soap Queen. Freddy poses as a disabled Navy officer and Lawrence as the only doctor in the world who can cure him.
Scoundrels is a pretty funny movie in large part because of the characters. Freddy, the less sophisticated of the two, is a pretty easygoing guy, but he goes all in when he’s working a con. On the other hand, Lawrence takes himself seriously at all times and it’s hard to tell the difference between him and his fictional roles. Much of the humour derives from the way the rivalry between these polar opposites plays out and how each becomes a little bit more like the other to get the job done.
It’s far from a perfect movie. Most glaringly, the plot is not bulletproof. Even in a pre-Wikipedia world, one would think at least one of the con victims would eventually figure out that Lawrence was a fraud and return to confront him. Also, both Freddy and Lawrence’s cons are so outlandish that their purported success rates are hard to believe. Still, as a lighthearted comedy, it’s very good.
What struck me the most on second viewing twenty years later is that, although it was made at a time when Steve Martin was one of the biggest comic box office draws (Planes, Trains and Automobiles, Three Amigos, etc), the movie’s comedic value didn’t just depend on Steve Martin showing up on screen and being goofy (except for maybe one scene). Although I’m sure I’m over-generalizing, comedies of more recent vintage seem more likely to take big name actors and create a movie around their personalities instead of the stories. While the latter type can work out (if you like Will Ferrell, you’ll probably like Anchorman and The Other Guys), I much prefer a movie where the humour flows from story and the characters.
According to Wikipedia, Soundrels was also remade into a Broadway musical starring John Lithgow in 2005. Now that I gotta see!