‘Gambit’ Review: This May Just Be the Worst Thing the Coen Brothers Have Ever Written

By  · Published on May 5th, 2014

CBS Films

Even the Coen Brothers deliver a dud on occasion, but the films usually still have something going for them. That isn’t the case with their penned remake of Gambit, directed by Michael Hoffman. It’s sad to say, but Gambit is like some fan aped their style in service of their flimsy idea of remaking Gambit.

Replacing Michael Caine as Harry Deane is Colin Firth, playing a dweeby, undervalued Englishman. For years he’s suffered at the hands of his intolerable nudist boss, Lionel Shahbandar (Alan Rickman). To stick it to the art collecting Lionel, Harry decides to pull a fast one on him. Deane’s con involves pretending he’s found a famous painting by chance, owned by a small town American woman, PJ Punznowski (Cameron Diaz). Everything sounds so perfect in his head, but once he involves the unpredictable Punznowski his plan becomes less and less promising.

Unfortunately, so does the film.

For the first 15 minutes Punznowski has no lines. It’s eventually revealed as a narrative joke: she’s an obnoxious character that can’t keep her mouth shut, so Deane’s dream scenario of this con involves her not speaking. Sadly, Diaz doesn’t have the comedic talent to make the silenced Punznowski work. It’s an awkward segment of the film – are the filmmakers giving Diaz nothing to do or is her silence meant as a joke? It doesn’t get any better once the apparent gag is over and Punznowski speaks up, but even with a lot more to say Diaz still can’t find her footing.

As recently proved by The Other Woman, she’s out of her depth when it comes to comedy and struggles to get a single joke to hit its mark. The material isn’t there to support her, but even Firth and Rickman manage to hit a few lively notes. Part of the problem is that we’re not watching Punznowski here, we’re watching Diaz putting on costumes and an accent. With a few exceptions, she’s not an actor who can disappear into a role.

Much like Diaz’s comedic timing Hoffman’s lethargic direction rarely gets it right. Broad comedy clearly isn’t his strong suit. The director behind Soapdish and The Last Station is generally reliable, but he can’t keep up with the Coens’ fast paced dialogue. It’s very much a point and shoot kind of direction, never letting the camerawork get in on the fun. A story this playful should have equally fun camerawork, but instead the camera is just kind of there.

Maybe the camera moves at a sluggish pace because the script itself is so thin. Around 88 minutes long, if Gambit moved at a screwball comedy pace and cut that unnecessary narrative gag, they would’ve ended up with a 60 minute movie. The hour long version of this movie would’ve been more enjoyable, but no less thin.

The Coens have written plenty of great comedies and Hoffman has directed at least one himself, but the key ingredient that make their comedies crackle is missing in Gambit. No matter how broad the Coens write, there’s recognizable human traits in their characters and predicaments. Firth and Rickman are mildly successful of embodying their tone, but Diaz sucks the air out of every scene she’s in, never able to disappear or ground Punznowski in anyway. Tone is incredibly important, especially in comedy, so when one actor is on the wrong page or unable to keep up, it can sink the ship. Since there’s already plenty of problems with Gambit, Diaz just makes the film sink faster.

The Upside: The animated opening credits; Firth and Rickman play well together; Firth nails a few deliveries

The Downside: Sluggishly paced; paper thin; Cameron Diaz can’t hold her own with Firth and Rickman; the Coen Brothers aren’t above fart jokes

On The Side: Gambit came out in the UK a year and a half ago.

Longtime FSR contributor Jack Giroux likes movies. He thinks they're swell.