A Film by Stanley Tucci
With his second do-it-(all)-yourself film, newly emerged quadruple-threat actor/director/writer/co-producer Stanley Tucci proves himself a talent to be watched. The Impostors is a triumphantly successful madcap comedy in the tradition of the Marx Brothers - not a copy in any sense but a total original that builds on the combination of fantasy, satire and inspired nonsense they so entertainingly developed.
Tucci's first film, Big Night, was a sweet small-film success that did surprisingly well at the box-office and was uniformly enjoyed by the critics. It was a gentle, realistic character-piece highlighted with a few bits of well-integrated physical comedy and comic dialogue. It was an auspicious debut, an enjoyable film.
The Impostors follows up with a beautifully constructed, expertly executed ensemble piece that builds gag upon gag in a way that continually surprises and delights. It is clever comedy, and unlike the recent, very funny but much broader and more vulgar There’s Something About Mary, it is a movie you can enjoy with your parents or your children.
Here, as in Mary - and in much classic comedy, from All's Well That Ends Well to It Happened One Night - concupiscence plays a key part in driving the action. In The Impostors, however, as in the classics, the theme is implied, assuming that the audience will get it, rather than graphically portrayed. In this case, less is much more.
Like many successful comedies, The Impostors relies on a series of brief episodes strung together into a narrative. As in the Marx Brothers' films, the narrative itself is largely unimportant, except as a framework on which to hang the comic "bits."
This is a risky structure, on which many ambitious films have stumbled. It requires that each episode be successful in itself, and that they build on each other. Pacing must be delicately handled, with pauses long enough to allow the audience to enjoy the jokes without milking them and fast enough to keep the audience rolling along without stepping on laugh lines or concerning themselves with issues of credibility.
Character is crucial. As in the best of Laurel and Hardy (of whom the principals, Tucci and co-star Oliver Platt are reminiscent physically) the dynamics of the relationship and a sympathetic appeal are an essential part of the comedy. What might seem mean-spirited or bitter coming from less innocent or helpless characters seems genuinely funny when it comes from the sympathetic underdogs. And the genuine kindness, loyalty and affection between them adds a warm emotional tone to the story.
The interest of the minor characters makes another crucially important contribution. Tucci has peopled his story with a wealth of wonderfully idiosyncratic individuals. Both the sympathetic and antagonistic characters are drawn with a combination of delicacy and caricature that makes them more than mere padding. They add emotional variety and texture to the production.
One key to making farce work is the restraint of the performers. A believable sincerity that plays the most absurd situations with dead earnestness and no suspicion of self-consciousness is the only way to carry off the foolishness of the plots without patronizing the audience. Tucci as director clearly understands this and his actors, himself included, take their comedy seriously. Unlike many actor/directors, Tucci is admirably self-disciplined and generous.
Oliver Platt was an excellent choice to work against Tucci here. With his ponderous good-nature, his mobile, doughy face and his bulky, teddy-bear body, he makes a perfect Mutt and Jeff contrast with Tucci's wiry, bouncy physical style, his sharpness and his equally rubbery but more distinctively drawn features. Lots of the best bits in the film rest on the give and take between the two, and they both make the most of each other's strengths.
Supporting characters here clearly support, from Scott Campbell as the martinet staff supervisor, Lily Taylor as the helpful social director, and Steve Buscemi as the aptly mis-named lounge singer Happy Franks, to Alfred Molina as a thoroughly phoney theatrical icon, Tony Shaloub as the anarchistic First Mate, and an uncredited appearance by Woody Allen as a hen-pecked wannabe theater director. Everyone does their part by carrying their characters through the madness with an oblivious determination.
The character signatures are beautifully delineated. Billy Connolly, as Sparks, the Greek-inspired Scots pugilist whose admiration for the naked male form knows no bounds, has a couple of wonderful scenes. Buscemi's suicidal misery, that invests even the lyrics of the pop songs he sings, is a devastating take on self-indulgent self-pity. Alfred Molina's drunken leading-man, on the downhill slide, is a picture of pompous self-importance and pettiness.
Good comedy, however, like a good joke, doesn't profit from analysis. It is not so much the individual parts of the film that are funny - although they are - as the cumulative effect of the episodes, the empathy with the characters this allows us to develop, and our open investment in the ridiculous adventures in which they are involved.
Tucci the screen writer deserves as much credit here as Tucci the actor or Tucci the director. He has given the film wonderful dialogue with which to work. Snappy, clever and intelligent, it is reminiscent of the best of George S. Kaufmann and the Marxes themselves. He never labors a joke or tries to hammer his cleverness home. As in the best of the classics, many of the sharpest lines are thrown away, subtle treats for those who are paying attention to catch and appreciate.
He writes to the strengths of his actors. Their characterizations fit the words they speak so accurately that it looks as if much of the dialogue were developed into final form during the filming process. Each character has a distinct voice, and their consistency from scene to scene sets up the many running gags that build so effectively on one another.
Tucci the director also deserves appreciation. He has assembled a top-notch cast of actors and encouraged and inspired them while curbing any tendency to self-indulgence. He has effectively balanced the elements of a film that is equally dependent on slapstick physical comedy, broad but disciplined characterization and witty dialogue.He has brought the elements together with supervision of the technical aspects of the filming and general design to create an amusing, emotionally plausible fantasy that never seems contrived or manipulative.
Everything about this film seems meticulously planned and fitted together. The sets have an endearing theatricalness. They are neither too realistic nor too stagey, but set an appropriate tone for the action, suspended somewhere between literal realism and pure fantasy. The costumes have an ersatz 1930's style that suggests cartoons without ever becoming stridently cartoonish.
The music is a treat. Actual period songs from the first half of the century - including a rendition of Parlez-moi d'Amour that becomes a key plot-point - and original music using consistent styles and instrumentation reinforce the imaginary time-frame in which the movie is set. A sort of faux-nostalgia for the fictitious worlds of the classic madcap comedies is evoked.
The camera work is unhurried but crisp. Again, using the most effective conventions of earlier comedies, the camera often takes a static point of view, while characters rush in and out of the frame. Quick edits, but not at the breakneck speed of MTV or many modern comedies nor with their often monotonous relentlessness, break up the episodes, and leave the audience pleasantly tipsy, but not dizzy.
The Impostors is one of very few films of the past several decades that may stand the test of time and enter the ranks of classic comedy. Although it is somewhat derivative, it borrows the best of the past and synthesizes it into something quite original and modern. As only the second solo effort from Tucci, it fulfills the promise offered by Big Night and encourages expectations of great things to come. It packs a surprising amount of genuine fun into a little under two hours.
That's my take on it. What's yours?