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.
“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.
“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 soufflé 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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