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4 Stars Movies

The Time Has Come to Act: The Impostors

I’m not blind to its shortcomings, but The Impostors is one of my most favorite movie comfort foods. That I find it so funny and purely enjoyable is really saying something, considering its milieu is the joblessness, desperation, and looming international conflict of The Great Depression.

The pitch: a loving homage to old-school Hollywood screwball comedies, with an all-star cast of 90s New York City indie personalities. It has the feel of a filmed stage play (like Peter Bogdanovich’s Noises Off) crossed with the loosey-goosey, making-it-up-as-they-go-along feel of a Marks Brothers or Laurel & Hardy romp. The stagey production values become a virtue as the same few sets are redressed over and over to amusing effect. Finally, the entire soundstage-bound facade is unveiled during a celebratory dance number that breaks the fourth wall. The Impostors is a refreshingly affectionate pastiche, and not satiric or ironic in the least.

Stanley Tucci and Oliver Platt in The Impostors

“To life… and its many deaths.”

The freewheeling farce is above all a love letter to the craft of acting. Arthur (Stanley 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 for the 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. What Arthur and Maurice yearn for, even more than to eat, is the opportunity to die in front of an audience. Not for nothing is their toast “To life… and its many deaths.”

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. Almost everyone’s an impostor.

Lily 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, Alison Janney, Alfred Molina, Richard Jenkins, 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?). And there’s still room in the soufflé for wildcards like a pre-Lost Michael Emmerson, Scottish comedian Billy Connolly, and a cameo by a manic Woody Allen in a superfluous skit that could easily have been cut.

The Impostors apparently landed with a bit of a thud after the critical and commercial success of Tucci and Scott’s justly acclaimed Big Night (which I also love, not least for containing cinema’s all-time greatest omelette-making scene).

Categories
3 Stars Movies

When Believer Met Skeptic: The X-Files: I Want to Believe

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.

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.

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

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.

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.

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

The plot is a mélange 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.

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). 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.

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

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.