Two if by sea!

Stanley Tucci one-ups 1930s screwball comedies with The Impostors

As a professional lamenter of how "they just don't make 'em like they used to," I am always thrilled on those rare occasions when someone even tries to make 'em that way. So I am doubly thrilled that, with The Impostors, writer-director Stanley Tucci has tried and richly succeeded.

Those who loved Tucci's 1996 Big Night should be forewarned that The Impostors, while equally good, is a whole different type of film. It has none of the blatantly serious moments that made its predecessor more of a comedy-drama; while it is not without its poignant moments, on the wacky scale it occasionally registers as high as many 1930s screwball comedies.

Tucci and Oliver Platt co-star as Arthur and Maurice, two starving actors in 1930s New York City. They are so desperate that they stage elaborate scams to avoid paying for a couple of cups of coffee. But so strong is their dim-witted devotion to their art that even these petty schemes constantly go awry; their work as con men is constantly thwarted by their instincts to make the scene right.

After they get into a brawl with hambone Shakespearean star Jeremy Burtom (Alfred Molina, seemingly channeling Lionel Atwill from 1942's To Be or Not to Be), they unwittingly stow away on a luxury liner heading for Europe. Burtom, naturally, is among the looney roster of passengers. (The working title for the movie was Ship of Fools.)

Also on hand are Mrs. Essendine (Dana Ivey), an impoverished upper-class matron looking for a new meal ticket; her depressive daughter Emily (Hope Davis); the even more depressive lounge singer Happy Franks (Steve Buscemi); an African sheik (Teagle F. Bougere) with a fetish for French chanteuses; a con man (Richard Jenkins) and his moll (Allison Janney), who intend to seduce, bilk, and murder Mrs. Essendine and the sheik; a mysterious veiled woman (Isabella Rossellini); and an aggressively gay "man's man" (Billy Connolly).

The crew is no saner than the passengers. The captain (Allan Corduner) is obsessed with finding the love he lost decades earlier. The unctuous first mate (Tony Shalhoub) is a treacherous Eastern European. The head steward (Campbell Scott) is a deranged German; he constantly comes on to head stewardess Lily (Lili Taylor), who's the only vaguely rational person on board. But Lily loves the hopelessly naive ship's detective, Marco (Matt McGrath).

Tucci comes up with some genuinely funny dialogue and situations: "We're not really stowaways," Arthur and Maurice tell Lily in a rush of words, as they run from the authorities. "We're actors...We're seeking new representation." And later (from Arthur, pretending to be a Brit): "Er...I'm...uh...from Chester- on-Chichester...near Manchester."

But this is one of those films that doesn't read nearly as well as it plays: Tucci is a good writer, but he's a much better director. Nearly all the film's biggest laughs come from performance rather than from material. (There is no way to explain in print how funny Scott is when he stretches out the name "Lily" in a lustful swoon.)

Tucci and Platt are in nearly every scene, and they display a chemistry so funny that it's easy to imagine additional Arthur and Maurice films. The only problem would be that their characters are a little too similar. Sometimes they're like Laurel and Hardy, but more often they're like Laurel and Laurel. Still, they have a wonderful way of talking over each other.

Like Preston Sturges, Howard Hawks, and Ernst Lubitsch, Tucci stuffs the frame with characters--in both senses of the word--and frequently gets hilarious work even from actors who are on-screen only for a few moments. Some are famous--Woody Allen shows up briefly as a wretched playwright with marital troubles. And some are obscure--I've never even heard of David Lipman, whose portrayal of a sweet, nebbishy baker is wonderfully reminiscent of Billy Gilbert's Mr. Pettibone in 1940's His Girl Friday.

Allen's oeuvre has clearly been an influence on Tucci. In addition to a soundtrack filled with Dixieland, tangos, and show-tune standards, The Impostors has the sort of descriptive subtitles ("The Audition," "The Scheme," "An Ocean Liner?!") that Allen has sometimes used; and like Allen, Tucci has a fondness for long shots that are effective precisely because so little is visibly going on.

But the tone is more madcap than most of Allen's later work, with the possible exceptions of 1982's A Midsummer Night's Sex Comedy and 1984's Broadway Danny Rose. And at times The Impostors seems to be operating in the same universe as the Marx Brothers, an impression that is reinforced by its superficial resemblance to 1931's great Monkey Business.

As wonderfully amusing as The Impostors is, however, it runs out of steam about two-thirds of the way through. The problem may be that Tucci, having survived so long on the precision of his comic scenes, belatedly overloads the plot: What should have been a buildup to a climax in the final act is somehow less energetic than what has preceded. Despite this, the movie never really stops being funny.

If all that's not enough, then consider this: Where else can you hear Steve Buscemi singing "The Nearness of You"? 'Nuff said.

The Impostors.
Directed and written by Stanley Tucci. Starring Tucci, Oliver Platt, Lili Taylor, Campbell Scott, Alfred Molina, Steve Buscemi, and Isabella Rossellini. Opens Friday.

 
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