In an interview alongside American co-star Cameron Diaz, British Oscar-winner Colin Firth expressed that he, “felt it would be nice to do a comedy”. This flavourless sentiment echoes throughout the dreary, vacuous and painfully goofy scenes of the farcical Gambit (2012). A bizarre joint venture between the acclaimed Coen brothers, who penned the screenplay, and Michael Hoffman in the director’s chair, Gambit is supposed to be a light-hearted refresh of Ronald Neame’s 1966 caper film, but is instead wrong-footed by daftness. Firth plays art curator Harry Deane, a pastiche of the original character played by Michael Caine back in the 60s.
Terrorised by his grumpy, callous boss, Lionel Shahbandar (Alan Rickman), plucky protagonist Deane seeks revenge with the help of his friend and ally Major Wingate (British New Wave stalwart Tom Courtenay), with the intention of faking a rare Monet that the art-loving Shahbandar simply must have. Calling on Texas rodeo sensation PJ Puznowski (Diaz) to aid them in their ruse, the trio stage a sham discovery and convince the cold-hearted businessman to part with his cash – with predictably calamitous results.
There was a time throughout the 1950s and 60s when heist films were wholly lovable yet clung to many darker notions about deception and robbery. Ealing Studios gave us classics including The Lavender Hill Mob (1951) and The Ladykillers (1955), before the genre was fortified by renowned capers such as The Pink Panther (1963), How to Steal a Million (1966) and The Italian Job (1969). Hoffman’s remake in no way recalls or rejuvenates the field, relying far too heavily on cheap sight gags or dumb stereotypes. Characters are mere rip-offs from an era of desperate heroes and the script is utterly weightless, neither calling upon the Coen brothers’ notable wit nor their capacity for writing feisty dialogue.
The themes that have survived in the heist genre today, most notably the taking down of large corporations or rich oligarchs, are completely pulverised in Gambit. Not only does the film forget its roots, but it also deviates from the genre by employing modern dramedy strategies; Firth just doesn’t suit the role, Diaz’s character is grossly underwritten and Rickman is tragically reduced to a cheap moneybags figure (though it’s clear he outshines the role). The occasional moment of wryness comes only from Rickman in which we glimpse the kind of jokes the Coens could have rallied.
It’s equally disastrous that the writers have some experience with the genre – the foundations of which were laid in 2004 when they wrote the screenplay for their remake of The Ladykillers. Just as there is nothing here for Coen fans, there’s nothing for Hoffman fans either. Gambit is poles apart from The Last Station (2009) and is devoid of both romance and comedy. Not even a ‘Making of’ section on the DVD with its interviews, behind the scenes footage and première night clips can recoup the losses.