Tuesday, December 03, 2013

Movie: The Impostors (1998)

I’m reluctant to file this post under the Tuesday’s Overlooked Movies rubric. After all, I remember The Impostors with so much affection that it was our Thanksgiving night entertainment, cinematic comfort food. The trailer’s not on YouTube – but a fan version is, which tells you something about the film’s reception.

Actor Stanley Tucci scored a succès d’estime with his maiden (co-)directorial effort, 1996’s delicate art vs. commerce fable Big Night. His follow-up left critics and audiences somewhat flummoxed. It’s an honest-to-God farce, a loving tribute to 1930s cinema featuring the best actors 1990s independent film had to offer.

Tucci and Oliver Platt play Arthur and Maurice, a pair of literally starving actors cut from Laurel and Hardy cloth. Fittingly the movie’s opening scenes play like one-reelers as the boys struggle to ply their trade. Thanks to their efforts, they run afoul of vainglorious thespian Sir Jeremy Burtom (Alfred Molina, gleefully picking scenery from between his teeth) and accidentally end up stowing away on a transatlantic cruise ship, where their troubles really start.

The characters onboard the vessel are broad types drawn from the era (Campbell Scott restores luster to a neglected favorite, the comedy German), each a faker in his or her own way. They’re played by an astonishing cast. The assemblage of talent is one of the things that keeps bringing me back to the movie: Steve Buscemi (singing!), Lili Taylor, Hope Davis, Richard Jenkins, Allison Janney, and many more. It was only on viewing the film last Thursday that I realized Burtom’s nameless dresser is played by Lost/Person of Interest star Michael Emerson. (Tucci is destined to be remembered by an entire generation as the preening M.C. of the Hunger Games Caesar Flickerman, but for me his legacy aside from his sterling work as a character actor is the trio of films he directed that show an affinity for a bygone New York: this, Big Night and Joe Gould’s Secret. I wish he’d make more of them.)

What I love about The Impostors, in addition to the players and the affection for the period, is the silliness. It celebrates a style of comedy seldom seen nowadays, wrapping up the mayhem with an end titles sequence that is one of the most joyous on film. Occasionally I’ll pop in the DVD just to watch the last shot. It never fails to make me feel like a million bucks.

On The Web: Crimes of the Century

Ethan Iverson is the hugely talented pianist in The Bad Plus, a connoisseur of crime fiction, and a man who does not shy away from monumental tasks. His latest dark undertaking is an exhaustive, highly idiosyncratic list of the genre’s must-read books. I was honored that he asked me to give feedback, along with the estimable Sarah Weinman. Clear the decks and go read his choices.