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‘Dirty Rotten Scoundrels’

By Hal Hinson
Washington Post Staff Writer
December 14, 1988


Frank Oz
Steve Martin;
Michael Caine;
Glenne Headly;
Barbara Harris
Parental guidance suggested

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"Dirty Rotten Scoundrels," starring Steve Martin and Michael Caine, is a comedy about the joys of conning, and you feel a secret release in the flagrant amorality and greed of its characters. They're predators, these two, sharks feasting on the gullible rich women who come to wiggle their toes in the azure waters of Beaumont-sur-Mer in the South of France. When decent human sentiments are mentioned they cock their heads in puzzlement. Their corruption has a glorious purity. They're rats, clean through.

Director Frank Oz has brought a devilish tang to the machinations here, and the actors bring a sense of a spoiled grandeur to their characters' mingy souls. The script for the film is Dale Launer's reworking of the forgettable 1964 comedy "Bedtime Story," starring Marlon Brando and David Niven. And the premise is as disposable now as it was then. Two rival gigolos bet each other that they will be the first to extract $50,000 from an American "soap queen" (Glenne Headley), with the agreement that the loser will leave town forever.

Caine is the smoother of the two. He plays a snakily elegant playboy named Jamison, who has raised the art of seduction to a lucrative business. Jamison isn't a champion between the sheets, and the good life has left the body well-padded and shmushable. What he appeals to in the women he approaches isn't their thirst for casbah sex but their desire for exotic adventure. Wearing a roue''s herring-thin mustache, he presents himself as a character in a romance novel -- an exiled prince trying desperately to raise the cash to finance the brave resistance fighters back home -- then offers his victims a role alongside him as the beautiful lady bountiful, savior of freedom.

The routine Jamison has set up is nearly foolproof, and he plays it out with practiced ease, at first refusing the offers of cash and jewels, then finally, when pressed, demurely accepting. This is a wonderful role for Caine; it allows him to show what a stylishly debonair performer he is. With another actor, Jamison might come across as unappetizingly cool. And make no mistake, he's a cad, but in Caine's hands he's a cad whose impeccable taste and delicate mastery of women seem almost mitigating.

By this method of soft extortion, Jamison has amassed a tidy fortune, with enough left over for a percentage of the profits to go to the local police inspector (Anton Rodgers), who provides intelligence on prospective targets and makes sure that Jamison's comfy franchise isn't threatened by poachers. The protection proves necessary when an American named Freddie (Martin) comes to town and begins to nickel-and-dime the women Jamison has planned to bilk for larger sums. He's rippling the waters in Jamison's placid cove, and the older man wants him gone.

Even if Freddie didn't represent a threat to his livelihood, Jamison, the light-fingered pro, might want to direct this amateur to the border simply because he offends his sensibilities. Freddie's approach to getting cash out of women is sledgehammer blunt and he has none of Jamison's old worldly savoir-fare. Once he gets a whiff of Jamison's setup, though, Freddie cuts himself in on the action (or else, he says, he'll blow the whistle) and demands that the elder rake teach him all he knows. What follows is a master's tutorial on the elements of millionaire style, and it's one of the funniest montages of the year. Jamison teaches Freddie his elegant, gliding saunter (Caine walks like Cary Grant, Martin like Bob Hope); how to hold a drink and lean nonchalantly against a column; even how to arrange flowers. Martin, the most eloquent of physical clowns -- the Baryshnikov of comedy -- is at his most inspired here. He parodies feelings, attitudes, states of mind that one would think were exempt from it, and his caricature of dapper suavity is killingly precise. When he pours champagne, even the angle of his wrists is a scream.

But perhaps Martin's most sublime moment comes in the character Prince Ruprecht, the simian brother Jamison has created for Freddie to play in order to scare away the women who want to settle down. And if Ruprecht's habit of looking at Jamison's girlfriends like a beagle does a fire hydrant doesn't frighten them away, then his revolutionary table manners certainly will.

Once it reaches this peak, the movie's energy seems to dissipate as the story details are worked out. And the more twisted up the plot gets, the less Oz seems in control. Headley turns out to be a wonderfully accomplished airhead, though -- she seems adrift in her own dreamy thoughts -- and her naivete' in the face of all these double-dealings inspires us to pay attention. Also, the golden Riviera light in Michael Bauhaus' cinematography keeps our eyes open too. Without question, this is the handsomest comedy of the year.

Though it's cleverly contrived, ultimately the picture can't escape its origins. It is, after all, based on a classic bummer. But the payoff is nifty; it'll have you second-guessing yourself and replaying the movie in your head. And for the most part the cast makes you forget the film's bloodlines. Until the end, the rats keep topping themselves, swishing their tails with vermin panache.

Dirty Rotten Scoundrels, at area theaters, is rated PG.

© Copyright 1999 The Washington Post Company

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