The Impostors (1998) Review
Starring: Oliver Platt, Stanley Tucci, Alfred Molina, Tony Shalhoub, Lili Taylor, Campbell Scott
They truly don’t make movies like this anymore. All you need to know to make this statement true is this: one of the first lines in this film is “You stole my death.” I mean, name one movie that spends the opening credits in complete silence with a slapstick fight that feels like it was pulled straight from a Marx Brothers routine, or a movie that introduces events through title cards, or even an ensemble film that actually gives every major character in it a moment or more to shine? The answer is The Impostors, a late nineties indie comedy from Stanley Tucci in his solo directorial debut. This is a gem of a film: quirky, unexpected, and best of all, funny. How this film has slipped under the radar is mystery, although I can guess why: The Impostors, in all its hilarious glory, is not a movie for everyone. Its sense of humor is one that would not satisfy those who find Grown Ups or Knocked Up or any film of those sorts funny. The sense of humor here is one that feels strange at first, with its offbeat comedy that feels like it belongs in a film from the 20’s than one made less than 20 years ago, but for those who give it a chance, they will be rewarded with something unforgettable. There’s no gross out humor, no fart jokes, no jokes that are aimed to offend (unless you get easily offended by characters portrayed as either terrorists, in some aspects of the word, or suicidal nuts), but it still gives off a warmth that so many movies now a days lack. It’s funny, it’s charming, it makes you care about character’s that would be used as poorly written comedic devises in mainstream comedies, it’s suspenseful, it’s fearful, it makes you laugh, gasp, and clap, it’s joyful, it celebrates love, life, and death all at the same time. It’s a hidden gem in all sense of the word.
Let’s start off with the plot. The story follows best friends Arthur, played by Stanley Tucci, and Maurice, played by Oliver Platt, two failed actors who do whatever than can for a performance. They do some knife play in an outdoor café, they audition for a play directed by Woody Allen, and they pretend to play good customer/rude customer with a bakery owner in order to get some pastries. None of these work for an abundant of reasons: Maurice steals Arthur’s “death,” the director’s wife takes her money out of the production, and Maurice, playing the rude customer, ends up protecting the baker after Arthur takes his bit too far and instead of pastries, gets tickets to a performance of Hamlet starring Jeremy Burtom, played by Alfred Molina, an overrated actor in their opinion. After getting in a scuffle with Burtom at a bar and being branded as criminals, they hide in a crate to get away from police. When they wake up the next morning, they find out they are on an ocean liner set for Paris. There, they must not only hide from Burtom, but also stop a New York couple posing as francophones from killing 2 of the richest passengers on board AND stop the first mate from blowing up the ship. Along the way we are introduced to several quirky characters, including the perky activities director, a German steward who is aggressively in love with her, an aging gay tennis player, a suicidal lounge singer, a broke widow looking for a rich husband, her depressed daughter, and a veiled queen.
Where do I begin? First off, unlike ensemble comedies of late, like Valentine’s Day and Tower Heist, each character, no matter how big the role gets their moment to shine. These little sub-plots are formed throughout the film and as they all come together, they never felt shoehorned in. Yes, there was at least one (the romance between the captain and the veiled queen) that made me think “when and why did that happen?” but the rest, from the couple’s plans to off the widow and a shriek to the romance between the activities director, Lily, and Marco, an Italian dectective who is sent to find Arthur and Maurice, feel natural and supported. The main plot in the film though is how Arthur and Maurice are going to save everyone on the ship, and with everything going on it would get pushed aside in other films. This is not the case here. Maurice and Arthur;s storylines stay the central parts of the story. While they are included more in the first half of the film, due to the fact that none of the other characters are introduced until they end up on the boat, even when all of these subplots are introduced, the friendship between Maurice and Arthur and their plan to stop the deaths of not only 2 people, but an entire ship of people is still in the forefront of the film. You care about these characters and their friendship even though you know barely anything about them. You don’t know how they met or how they became friends, their lives before the events in the movie, how they have gotten to this point in their lives, their past relationships, or even their last names…and yet you still care about them. They are really likeable characters who you route for throughout the film. Unlike the friendship in The Incredible Burt Wonderstone (a film I would kind of like to forget,) when something bad happens (which I won’t spoil) I got really upset because the characters are written so well that you don’t want what happens to be real. Their antics are great and their final plan in order to stop the crooks is great. I cared for the well-being of most of the characters and the downfall of the others, something that is rare for me to feel. The jokes barely ever fall flat. The sense of humor is a mixture of dark and out-there, going out with a literal bang with a very ambiguous ending that left me laughing and wondering “what the hell just happened?” There are several great jokes here that had me laughing my butt off, from Meistrich, the German steward, saying that killing a man is really not that hard to the lounge singer sobbing his way through “The Nearness Of You.” Even the jokes that break the fourth wall, something I usually despise in comedies, work perfectly, especially the one during the end credits that had me in stitches. It’s a comedy, that’s for sure, and it is not shy with saying that it is one.
Now for the characters. Arthur and Maurice are great characters with established personalities. They are both motivated in the beginning to become successful actors and in the second half to stop the ship from being blown to smithereens. Tucci and Platt are great in their roles with very honest and hilarious portrayals. If I continued on about them, I would just be repeating myself so I’ll move onto the rest of the characters. Alfred Molina is at his douchiest as the pompous drunk that is Jeremy Burtom. Playing a character that I have seen compared to John Barrymore, he is a very unredeemable character who overreacts to an injury the two leads didn’t even cause. He isn’t a likeable character, but Molina does great work making him a funny character. Some of his lines are just perfect for the character that is being portrayed; stuck-up, arrogant, and totally full of himself. He is a great villain. The best character and portrayal of their character though has to be from Campbell Scott as Meistrich. Oh my god is this guy funny. As the German steward I mentioned earlier, he has so many great moments and lines, the most memorable being, “You are a wild beast and I must tame you.” Every time he was on screen I was cracking up and made an already great film even better. The rest of the cast is brilliant. There’s Billy Connoly, in all his awesomeness, as Sparks, the openly gay tennis player who has a great moment as he chases down Oliver Platt in drag (don’t ask), Lili Taylor as Lily, the activities director that helps Maurice and Arthur out throughout the film, Dana Ivey as Mrs. Essendine, a widow who is desperate to find a rich husband (the term drop dead before they he/she gets here gets a brand new meaning), Steve Buscemi as the suicidal lounge singer with the most ironic name in the film (the suicidal guy is named Happy. Let that sink in for a moment..), Hope Davis as Ivey’s depressed daughter Emily who ends up falling in love with the equally depressed Happy, Tony Shalhoub as Voltri, the terrorist on board who, in one of the creepier moments of the film, dry humps a bed to sound of his lovers voice, Alison Janney and Richard Jenkins as Maxine and Johnny, the murderous pair of lovers, and Matt McGrath as Marco, the detective on board who is also vying (in his case successfully) for Lily’s love, who also spouts one of the best lines in the film. There is not a weak link the cast and everyone gives performances that are near to extremely perfect.
The only other thing that I need to talk about is something that I don’t usually talk about. It is the subject and message the movie is most trying to convey. The thing about this movie is that it’s not truly about one thing. It is a comedy but it spends a lot of time on the subject of love and death. The final line in this film is “To life and it’s many deaths.” The ending is extremely ambiguous, with the outcome of the character’s, at least in my opinion, a questionable one. If you exclude the main plot (the friends trying to stop the murders of 2 characters and the bombing of the ship,) death is handled a lot in this movie. For starters, Happy attempts to kill himself at least 4 times in this movie, Emily’s father is recently deceased and it has affected her and her mother in very different ways, and one of the main characters is apparently killed in one scene. One of the more poignant of quotes in this film comes from Emily, during the scene when her mother is discussing her husband’s death and she, in her corner of the room, deadpans, that “We don’t find death. It finds us.” The angle of how death affects us and how it makes us react is one I found interesting. However, there is the theme of love as well. Everyone seems to have a love interest in this film, except for the two leads: Miss Essendine spends most of the film looking for a, for a lack of a better term, sugar daddy, Lily and Marco are infatuated with each other throughout the film, with their conclusion being a sweet but hilarious one, Meistrich spends the time he doesn’t spend looking for the stowaways aggressively hitting on Lily, Sparks hits on Maurice several times when he is both in and out of drag, Happy’s suicidal tendencies are because of his wife, who left him for his agent, Emily ends up falling in love with Happy because just like her, he is obviously depressed, Maxine and Johnny are extremely in love, so in love that they will kill to give themselves a great life, and one of Volti’s motivations for blowing up the ship is so that he can be with his love, Regina. Another poignant quote here is from Happy, who tells Emily when she begs him to not want to die that people are afraid of several things, but that people should fear love because “Love is real and it is terrifying. If you are going to be afraid, be afraid when someone says I love you.” That is also a true message: love is a very scary thing but as the character’s storyline progresses, they learn that you have to face their fears. While love is scary, like all of your fears you must face them. On the other hand, death is something that will affect everyone someday in their life and how we react to tragedies sets in motion how the rest of our lives will go. I don’t know what is the message of this film, but both of these theories are ones that could fit to this movie very well.
I haven’t seen a movie this good since Perks of Being a Wallflower (except maybe The Place Beyond the Pines, but I’m still digesting that one.) Comedies nowadays are not as good as this (at least the ones I have seen.) You care about the characters, you never see the next twist or turn in the road, the jokes are always coming, and overall it’s an extremely interesting film. I will be wondering for a while why this film isn’t considered a classic like Groundhogs Day and The Big Lebowski, but then again I already know the answer to this: this film is not one that will satisfy every comedy fan. We are used to films with over-the-top humor that is more about what the characters do than the characters themselves. Your average moviegoer would probably hate this movie, with its title cards and satiric comedy of performers from the 20’s to 40’s and 6 minutes of silence at the start. Really, the reason many people have not seen The Artist (another great movie) is because it is completely silent until the very end. Not many would stick around after The Impostors opening credits and if they did another part would leave because this movie has a sense of humor that not many would like. But you know what I say? See it. See a hidden gem that so many would just skip over. I give kudos to Stanley Tucci (who I forget to mention also wrote this movie), Oliver Platt, and the rest of the cast and crew for making a great work of art. It truly is something you need to see for yourself. If you are interested in seeing this (which I highly recommend you do), look it up on Google or whatever search engine you use and try to find it. Give it a try and who knows. Maybe you will love it.