The heist movie has a fairly ironclad blueprint. Intrinsic to the setup are high stakes, a healthy dose of charm and the right number of twists and fake-outs culminating in a satisfying payoff. At this point in the genre’s twilight, even knuckleheads like Vin Diesel are able to pull it off convincingly. With most of the right ingredients, why does Gambit remain such a stinker?
Harry Deane (Firth) is a long suffering employee of media tycoon and fine art lover Lionel Shabandar (Rickman). Hatching a plan to get his revenge by foisting a sought-after painting into the hands of his bullying boss for a fortune, Deane employs the skill of master forger The Major (Courtenay) and cowgirl PJ Puznowski (Diaz) to help carry it off. Set in London and seemingly filmed mid-February, Gambit‘s grey palette contributes little to the extreme dearth of fireworks on screen. Of course, there are serious heists (like Heist) and there are comic heists (like Gambit). So, let’s not take things too seriously. This isn’t a bank-job. No-one’s going to die in slow-motion. Except that’s precisely what happens, scene by scene, minute by minute.
Comic capers like this have far more difficult things to worry about than the ABCs of cinematic thievery, and Gambit‘s big con can afford to be a few twists short of an elegant bow. The high stakes in comedy concern the sympathy factor, not the pyrotechnics dept. As such, every successive ‘gotcha’ is quietly trotted out and laid to rest with a shameful shrug. Films are perfectly capable of going through the motions and being watchable. That Gambit‘s few reveals are about as fresh and surprising as a tin of tomatoes is ultimately excusable. What really stings is the wealth of talent involved, and the utter, inexcusable blandness that results. The script came to the Coen Brothers for a rewrite in-between films, and that’s the feeling that quickly establishes Gambit‘s mood. No-one brings their A-game, or even their B-game. Especially Firth, whose embodiment of the shambolic Deane turns what on paper must have been conceived as a hapless bumbler into an intensely unlikable whinger.
As Deane, Firth inhabits a recognisably down-on-his-luck jobsworth, mistreated and fed-up. We’ve seen plenty of these, but his social ineptitude and propensity to complain about his boss at every opportunity starts to grate early on, not least when hired hand Puznowski shows a romantic interest in Alan Rickman’s slimy billionaire. The crack in Firth’s voice as he expels line after line about his maltreatment positively reeks of self-pity, and it’s to the script’s modest credit that Diaz is allowed a moment to call him up on the incessant whining. A conman lacking in confidence is the chestnut that’s supposed to define Gambit‘s clumsy protagonist, and it’s pretty much spelled out as Deane is told to get his act together by Diaz’s brash Texan. Evidently no-one on set was listening. As Deane croaks and fumbles his way through the big plan, it’s no wonder his boss considers him such a monumental fuck-up. It’s also something of a shock that a national treasure like Firth could misfire so spectacularly, but perhaps it’s the London setting that entitled him to such a sleepy day at the office.
Marginally better are Rickman and Diaz. It’s hard to tell if Rickman’s customary lack of movement or facial expressions are purposeful or not, but his boss from hell manages to bark his way around Gambit with some verve and conviction. Really, the film only approaches comedy when some nifty editing undercuts Deane’s rehearsed portrait of Shabandar as a malevolent, dictatorial nudist with the reality that he’s merely a very shrewd, no-nonsense businessman. Diaz does her best with Puznowski, but as the broad Texas rodeo queen she’s not allowed to be more than a block-coloured plot contrivance. Stanley Tucci livens things up briefly as rival art curator Zaidenweber, but his OTT German accent can only raise spirits so high.
Gambit suffers for around ninety minutes. While not completely shameless, it’s the sense of a troubled beast being emphatically euthanised that sticks in the craw. Over the years Aaron Sorkin, Robert Altman, Alexander Payne and quite a few others have been attached to Gambit. That said, over a decade on the backburner will do more than dull enthusiasm. Its eventual resting place can hardly be said to share ignominious company, and that’s what frustrates. A film with such an easily enjoyable plot and a cracking cast shouldn’t wheeze and sputter like this. Alas, Hollywood’s invited everyone to the wake, which appropriately features more than a few bowed heads.
Gambit, we hardly knew ye.