I remember my first Marx Brothers movie. It was A Night at the Opera, and I was hooked. The delicious combination of humorous wordplay, physical comedy, and great music sent me in search of the rest of the Brothers’ opus. I must have seen Duck Soup a hundred times as a teenager.
Okay, so The Imposters — written, directed, and produced by Stanley Tucci — doesn’t quite reach the pinnacle the Marx Brothers achieved. The script is clever but the humor is mostly physical, of the “doors open, doors close” kind, with some crossdressing thrown in for good measure. And there certainly is much more raunch than the Marx Brothers probably ever dreamed of filling their films with. But still…
Set in one of my favorite eras — the 1920s — The Imposters is full of gorgeous costumes, fabulous music, and beautiful sets. Maurice (Oliver Platt) and Arthur (Tucci) are out-of-work actors who keep in form by practicing their art with hilarious, impromptu scenes staged in restaurants and bakery shops, just to keep on their toes (and maybe wrangle some free grub). In a wonderfully roundabout and convoluted sequence, they manage to cheese off the pompous, overrated, drunken Broadway star Jeremy Burtom (Alfred Molina), the consequence of which is that Maurice and Arthur end up as stowaways on a cruise ship (don’t ask how — just treat yourself to the zaniness that is this film). In classic style, Burtom is also a passenger on the ship — as are a suicidally depressed lounge singer Happy Franks (Steve Buscemi, as wonderful here as he was awful in Armageddon), con artists out to marry for money and kill, a traitorous first mate (Tony Shalhoub), a deposed queen (Isabella Rossellini), a lecherous tennis pro (Billy Connolly), a kindhearted cruise director (Lili Taylor) and her Nazi-like boss (Campbell Scott)… You get the picture.
Tucci’s script is full of layers and constantly plays on the concept of artifice, of using acting to hide your true self. Maurice and Arthur act out games with others who don’t realize they’re pretending; of course, they also disguise themselves in various ways on the ship. The American con artists hide in French personas to fool their gullible victims. The cruise director pretends to return an attraction to her boss when it suits her goals. The first mate communicates by radio to his fellow revolutionaries in the privacy of his quarters. And brilliantly, Tucci reminds us that there’s another layer of pretending here, when, as the end credits roll, all the actors dance off the cruise-ship set, through the movie studio filled with cameras and film crew, and into the streets of the present day.
The Imposters is very different from Tucci’s last film, Big Night, a tale of two Italian brothers struggling to run a restaurant in 1950s New Jersey and the best food porn since Tampopo. It gives me great hope that he’ll be treating us to his quirky and delightfully original films for years to come.