Tuesday, June 23, 2015

Dirty Rotten Scoundrels and Casting Choices (Spoiler-Free Review)

My posts can get a little didactic... I always end up wanting to get on the same page before reviewing the actual movie. Movies are subjective, and what each person extracts from any given film experience will be different and based on varying values. As a film-fan and filmmaker myself, I tend to talk in operational terms(how to make movies) and so I try to get everyone on the same page before I even start into a movie review. It doesn't mean you need to agree with me, or that my opinion matters more somehow. It just means that's how I've come to understand those experiences.

But today, I don't need any of that.

Recently I revisited Dirty Rotten Scoundrels, and I just love that film. This time I was particularly struck by the genius of the casting. At it's core, Scoundrels is a buddy picture - and fits well within that genre when you consider it in those terms, despite the fact that Steve Martin and Michael Caine are actually rivals rather than friends for this story.

Good buddy pictures are built on the ideas of interacting opposites. Two characters that are so different their mere proximity breeds comedy. Whether it be pairing of straight-laced and carefree, old and young, or fat guy and llama.  But the genius behind Steve Martin and Michael Caine is that they are fundamentally different people. They can both have similar back stories, occupations, and can even be striving for the same goal, but they are incapable of being the same.

On top of that, the clashing opposites in Dirty Rotten Scoundrels is often more subtle than in other buddy pictures. The two of them aren't reluctant partners or forced to be friends in order to get through some ordeal. Instead, the film recognizes their differences and uses them against each other in their ongoing duel. Also, their differences are obvious, but not cliche. They stem from the fact that these two characters - and more especially the two actors and comedians playing them - are just really different people who act in really different ways. And the source of that difference doesn't even really matter.

To illustrate my point perfectly, there is one scene after Steve Martin learns that Michael Caine is making significantly more money, wherein Steve Martin's character asks to be tutored in Caine's refined ways. Throughout the scene, Martin tries to imitate Caine's behavior, adopt his interests, and even tries to take on his mannerisms. It's so hilarious because Martin ends up looking like a child, pretending to be a grown up without knowing really what to do with himself while he goes through the motions. Part of this is due to the fact that Martin is a remarkably talented physical comedian, and part of it is just the plain fact that Martin couldn't become Caine if he wanted to.

In fact, part of the genius of Dirty Rotten Scoundrels is that these characters have the same occupation and are pursuing the same goals. We get to see them chase after their muse, but using completely different strategies, strengths, and perspectives. And all this characterization is wonderfully conveyed within the first ten minutes of the film, without an exposition dump, before the central plot has even begun to unfold.

In summary, several directors have remarked at the necessity of great casting in film, and I just wanted to point out one of my favorites. Go see Dirty Rotten Scoundrels, it's a fun and hilarious film.

P.S. I also realized while writing this that Frank Oz has directed 3 of my favorite Steve Martin films. Guess he does more than pig, monster, and alien voices.

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