Reviewed by Colin Jacobson (June 5, 2014)
Did someone declare May 2014 to be “National Movies About Art Theft Month” in the US? Apparently so, as that period produced at least two films about that subject. I enjoyed The Art of the Steal, so I hoped I’d like Gambit, another effort with well-known talent that went direct to video in the States.
Harry Deane (Colin Firth) works as art curator for wealthy media man Lord Lionel Shahbandar (Alan Rickman) – and he hates his arrogant, abusive boss. Along with an expert forger called “The Major” (Tom Courtenay), Harry plans to rip off Lionel via an elaborate scheme.
To succeed in this, Harry recruits American rodeo rider PJ Puznowski (Cameron Diaz). It happens that her family owns the supposedly long-lost Monet piece “Haystacks”, and Harry knows that Lionel will pay through the nose to own it.
Rather than purchase it outright from PJ, Harry uses her as part of a plan to forge the painting and get the fake to his boss. Of course, this doesn’t go off without complications, so we follow the winding machinations as Harry attempts to get the best of his nasty employer.
Gambit comes with a strong pedigree. Based on a 1966 film with Michael Caine and Shirley MacLaine, it boasts a script by Joel and Ethan Coen as well as a notable cast that also involves Stabley Tucci. With all that talent behind it, how could it fail to delight?
Despite all those hopes, Gambit doesn’t manage to live up to expectations. At its best, it gives us a watchable affair, but it never manages to become anything more than that.
The movie tends to be slow and leaden where it should dash, and that becomes a problem. Even at a mere 89 minutes, Gambit feels a bit plodding; it doesn’t drag badly, but where it should zip along, it remains sluggish.
One issue comes from the interaction of the actors, as they don’t blend well. Firth seems to semi-channel Michael Caine, and he does so with little charm; while we should root for Harry, we don’t like him enough to care about his success. Diaz proves more likable as PJ, but her broad portrayal means that she seems too phony for us to embrace her. Diaz boasts strong comedic chops but she buries them beneath her mannerisms and accent.
Director Michael Hoffman fails to add the necessary zing to the process. Perhaps the Coens themselves could’ve given the effort the bite it needs, but Hoffman lacks the deft touch to make the movie delight.
In the end, none of this flops, and Gambit occupies our time in a passable manner. Unfortunately, that isn’t enough to turn it into a winning effort. The movie semi-wastes its excellent cast and fails to end up as anything more than mediocre.