The Impostors

The Impostors movie poster

 

Stanley Tucci’s The Impostors (1998) is without a doubt one of the funniest and most purely enjoyable movies I’ve ever seen. And that’s really saying something, considering its milieu is the joblessness, desperation, and looming international conflict of The Great Depression. Baldly composed as a loving homage to old-school Hollywood screwball comedies, it has the feel of a filmed stage play like Peter Bogdanovich’s Noises Off (1992) crossed with the loosey-goosey, making-it-up-as-they-go-along feel of a Marks Brothers or Laurel & Hardy romp. The production values may be frankly rather cheap, but it turns its budget into a virtue as the same sets are redressed over and over to amusing effect, and finally as the entire soundstage-bound facade is unveiled during a celebratory dance number that breaks the fourth wall. Refreshingly, The Impostors is an affectionate pastiche, and not satiric or ironic in the least.

Olive Platt and Stanley Tucci in The Impostors“To life… and its many deaths.”

The freewheeling farce is above all a love letter to the craft of acting. Arthur (Tucci) and Maurice (Oliver Platt) are two perpetually out-of-work actors so enamored of their chosen profession that they will not consider pursuing any other line of work even when faced with starvation. Their daily routine consists of staging acting exercises for themselves in public, duping passersby into serving as their participatory audience, like a prototype of modern-day pranksters Improv Everywhere. An escalating series of misadventures finally delivers them into a scenario in which their acting skills for once become useful: the opportunity to portray fabulously rich cruise ship passengers, to save the day, and of course to die magnificently heartbreaking deaths while doing so. One could argue that what Arthur and Maurice want, even more than to eat, is the opportunity to die in front of an audience. It’s worth noting that most of the legitimate passengers are anything but; most have either lost fortunes during the Depression, are conspiring to steal new ones, or plot to wreak terrorist havoc in the name of fascism.

Lili Taylor and Campbell Scott in The Impostors“The danger of the chase has made you perspire. It has made me also… moist.”

Tucci’s paean to acting attracted an ensemble cast to die for, including a dream team of 1990s indie superstars including Lily Taylor, Steve Buscemi, Hope Davis, Isabella Rossellini, Tony Shalhoub, and Campbell Scott (who shamelessly steals and runs away with the movie with a sublimely odd character that answers the unasked question: what if Marvin the Martian were a lovestruck Nazi?). A great many others would achieve greater fame later: Alison Janney (The West Wing), Alfred Molina (Spider-Man 2), Michael Emmerson (Lost), and Richard Jenkins (The Visitor – read The Dork Report review). And there’s still room in the soufflĂ© for wildcards like Scottish comedian Billy Connolly and a cameo by a manic Woody Allen in a superfluous (but still funny) skit.

Sadly, The Impostors was not nearly as much of a critical or commercial success as Tucci and Scott’s acclaimed Big Night (1996), which may or may not have anything to do with the fact that Tucci has only directed two films since (Joe Gould’s Secret in 2000 and Blind Date in 2008). Let’s hope he and Big Night co-director Scott conspire again soon in the future.


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The X-Files: I Want to Believe

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The first X-Files feature film Fight the Future (1998) was so tightly bound to the complex mythology of the original television series that it was mostly incomprehensible to anyone not already a deeply committed fan. I myself had only seen the odd episode over the years, and as such could barely follow what was going on. This unexpected sequel, belatedly coming about six years after the conclusion of the series and a full decade after the last feature film, is a standalone adventure almost entirely decoupled from the series’ unifying story arc: all that jazz involving an invasion of body-snatching aliens collaborating with the government, all of which may or may not have something to do with sticky black goo.

David Duchovny in The X-Files: I Want to BelieveDon’t eat the yellow snow

Freed of the weight of years of continuity allows this new film to dig into the true core of the series: the relationship between Fox Mulder (David Duchovny) and Dana Scully (Gillian Anderson). These are two people who not only deserve each other (their idea of pillow talk is to discuss toxicology reports) but are actually each other’s yin and yang. Their believer / skeptic dynamic fueled the addictive science fiction aspects of the show, but also the sexual tension that helped make it a hit. They each need each other in order to not self-destruct.

Scully, a know-it-all redhead like a grown-up Hermione Granger, is every geek boy’s crush. In the intervening years, she has voluntarily left the FBI to toil without reward as a doctor at the aptly-named hospital Our Lady of Sorrows. As a pragmatic woman who does not operate on faith, a Catholic Church-operated institution is the last place she ought to be. Her counterpart Mulder, since last we’ve seen him, has become the stereotypical bearded recluse. Without the mediating influence of Scully, it’s clear he’s only a few cranky letters to the editor away from becoming the next Unibomber.

Gillian Anderson in The X-Files: I Want to BelieveScully is, as usual, the life of the party

Meanwhile, next-generation FBI Special Agent Dakota Whitney (Amanda Peet) investigates the alleged visions of a convicted pedophile Father Joseph Crissman (played against type by wacky comedian Billy Connolly). Needing agents with a certain expertise in the weird, she gets the old X-Files band back together. In an unfortunately dropped subplot, it’s evident she crushes on an endearingly oblivious Mulder. In fact, her entire character is unfortunately dropped too soon – dropped down an elevator shaft, that is. Sorry for the snarky spoiler, there, folks.

The plot is a mĂ©lange of hot buttons ripped from the headlines, Law & Order style. Ticking the boxes, we have lung cancer, gay marriage, Catholic church pedophilia (the murderer turns out to be the husband of a grown altar boy that the Father buggered years ago), stem cells (Scully attempts to cure a boy’s rare brain disease with research she cunningly finds via Google), grotesque scientific experiments (a plot point refers to an actual Cold-War era Russian experiment that has been making the rounds on the internet recently involving artificially sustaining a dog’s severed head). To top it all off, the movie also features cinema’s most extreme sex change operation since The Silence of the Lambs.

Amanda Peet in The X-Files: I Want to BelieveSpecial Agent Dakota Whitney has an appointment with an elevator shaft

The X-Files: I Want to Believe was poorly reviewed, and worse, a commercial failure (although, granted, much of the latter was the fault of opening opposite Batman: The Dark Knight – read The Dork Report review). The most radical innovation to the X-Files formula is the new version of the famous theme music by electronica outfit UNKLE, so perhaps audiences and critics wanted something new. But it’s an enjoyable film, largely because it’s not without some humor, and against all odds, features a happy ending for the long-suffering couple.

A note on the DVD: I watched the “Extended Version” cut, so I can’t comment on how significantly it may differ from the theatrical version. Among the bonus features is an interesting featurette in which Chris Carter discusses the “green production” for the movie (the use of hybrid cars, recycling of set materials, etc.), and how he abhors the waste that typically goes into television and movie production. An anti-smoking public service ad is included on the DVD, making one wonder if the recurring theme of lung cancer in the plot was grafted on or an organic component to the plot.


Official movie site: www.xfiles.com

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