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[whitespace] The Imposters
Bill Foley

Lingering Fingering: Stanley Tucci (left) and Oliver Platt get to know each other in 'The Imposters.'

A huge cast sinks Stanley Tucci's 'Imposters'

By Richard von Busack

A SHIPBOARD FARCE is Stanley Tucci's disastrous follow-up to his tragicomic Big Night. The Imposters dives for the memory of scores of screwball comedies of the 30s and '40s, and belly-flops. Tucci, who wrote and directed, casts himself and Oliver Platt as a Laurel and Hardy-like pair, bad 1930s-era actors so desperate to perform that they improvise fight scenes on the street to try to capture the attention of passersby. One improvisation nets Arthur (Tucci) and Maurice (Platt) a sort of reward: a pair of free theater tickets to go see an acclaimed no-talent British theatrical star massacring Hamlet.

The Hamlet of Jeremy Burtom (Alfred Molina) is The Imposters' lone highlight. Burtom is a painted-up crap-actor whose terrific histrionics on stage are only matched by his nastiness--Burtom gets drunk during intermission and comes back to slash his co-stars in the sword-fighting scenes. The wounded Laertes in the Burtom production is played by Arthur and Maurice's friend Mike (Matt Molloy). Just as the three actors are freshly denouncing the vicious Burtom in a local bar, the rotten star arrives with his entourage. A scuffle breaks out, the police arrive, and Arthur and Maurice go hide from the cops in a packing crate on the docks. As the two snooze, the crate is hauled aboard the S.S. Intercontinental. Maurice and Arthur are trapped aboard the ship as stowaways; as they look for hiding places, they accidentally discover a bomb plot and other dangerous intrigues.

This luxury liner carries a motley crew for its transatlantic crossing. Among them: Lili Taylor, with a fetching '40s coiffure as the chipper head stewardess; Isabella Rossellini as a deposed queen; Billy Connolly as a brawny homosexual tennis player with some sort of D.H. Lawrence complex about wrestling; Campbell Scott as a Von Stroheim-like Prussian steward named Meistrich; the handsome character actress Allison Janney as a deadly vamp and Hope Davis and Steve Buscemi as near-suicidal passengers.

It'd take real genius to organize all of these various orders of people into a farce, so Tucci can't really be held entirely responsible for failing. Using blackouts and title cards, he tries to shuffle scenes around, for tag-team comedy. If every other sketch worked, the film might be passable, but not even every fourth or fifth episode delivers a laugh. Scenes trail off into nothingness and gags fall flat. The various disguises the passengers assume don't bring out the hoped-for hidden comedy. For example, Oliver Platt is not funnier when he's made up in drag. Platt needs bigger-than-life roles to bring out his peculiar brand of comedy; he should be playing martinets, devils, insane academics, smilers with concealed knives. Platt is too scary to play a sweet oaf. Tucci, smaller, harmless, is probably weary of being typecast as weasels in other people's movies. By contrast, he should watch out for pathos--naturally, a failed comedy always grabs for the heartstrings, like a drowning man reaching for a rope. The screwball comedies Tucci is trying to recreate only looked effortless; into the making of those effervescent films went years of experience in vaudeville, dozens of writers and relentless fine-tuning. Tucci piles in a huge cast for this loosely written, uncoagulated farce. This film is gentle, harmless nostalgia. It begs shamelessly to be liked, and I couldn't. This waste of time and talent is thoroughly depressing. An alternate title: It's a Sad, Sad, Sad, Sad World.

The Imposters (R), directed and written by Stanley Tucci, photographed by Ken Kelsch, starring Stanley Tucci, Oliver Platt and Lily Taylor.

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From the October 1-7, 1998 issue of Metro.

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