Movies On A Plane: ‘Gambit,’ The Forgotten Coen Brothers Project

We tend to see hotly-anticipated films at the theater and catch up on acclaimed foreign and arthouse features at home. For everything else, there’s Movies On A Plane. Because some movies are meant to be watched on a plane.

You probably haven’t heard of the non-X-Men version of ‘Gambit,’ despite the fact that it stars Colin Firth and Cameron Diaz and had a screenplay written by the Coen Brothers. When a movie has a script written by Oscar-winning writers and stars an Oscar-winning actor and arguably the most bankable actress in Hollywood, and it still manages to sneak under the radar, that makes a strong statement. A statement that whoever made it was so convinced that they’d never make money on it that they chose to cut their losses rather than advertise (a move apparently not even considered by the makers of ‘Sex Tape’ and ‘Knight and Day’). But hey, maybe they got it all wrong? Whatever, I had five hours to kill and free peanuts.

So I pay my eight bucks (on credit card, not real money), and crank up ‘Gambit,’ which begins with an extended, animated credits sequence a la ‘The Nanny’:

‘The Nanny’ always made me feel like an alien who was just visiting and ‘Gambit’ is the same. Only unlike ‘The Nanny,’ the credits don’t even have lyrics to tell you what you’re watching. It’s apparently about a cowgirl played by Cameron Diaz, a British klutz played by Colin Firth, and an A-hole tycoon played by Alan Rickman. I say “apparently” because the whole thing feels like it comes from an alternate universe where we already know all about Cowgirl Cam and Klutzy Colin and we’re just squealing with recognition at the sight of their odd couple ways. It’s like putting the tag before the joke and the movie starts with a good three minutes of it.

It does turn out to be a pretty accurate representation of the film. You spend a lot of it wondering “Huh? What? Where am I?” which is something common to bad stories and bargain bin movies. Where it constantly feels like someone’s telling you a joke but left out a giant chunk in the middle. They’ll say “…and so then the fish says,” and you’re like “Wait, what fish? There’s a fish? Why is the fish talking?”

In ‘Gambit,’ that talking fish is Cameron Diaz, and it’s a testament to the movie’s badness that Cameron Diaz playing a cowgirl with an over-the-top Texas accent isn’t the worst thing in it (actors should really have to get a license before they’re allowed to attempt Southern accents). The basic plot is this: Colin Firth works for a Rupert Murdoch-esque tycoon played by Alan Rickman. He’s a big jerk, which we know instantly because the movie does everything but give him big black lightning bolts for eyebrows and draw stink lines around him. He takes meetings naked and sits spread eagled behind his desk while pushing papers towards Colin Firth with his feet. Haha! Isn’t that just like a bad boss, always getting naked? Actually, it turns out the whole thing is a dream sequence, and Firth only thinks his boss is a nudist because he misheard “Eton retreat” as “Eden retreat.”

Whaaaat the f*ck ever.

Firth has a friend (“The Major”) whose hobby is painting high-quality counterfeits of famous paintings. The two have a scheme going to swindle Rickman on a famous, lost Monet called “Haystacks at Dusk,” by planting a counterfeit version in the home of Cameron Diaz. She just so happens to be the granddaughter of a US Army sergeant who was the first man inside when a cave full of Nazi loot was liberated by the Allies in WWII. Firth has to set the trap, Rickman has to try to buy the art from Diaz, whose silent partner, Firth, being in Rickman’s employ as an art expert (?) will then falsely certify the piece as genuine, whereupon he and Diaz will split the loot.

Confused yet? Yeah, I know.

You’re so full of questions about the whole thing (is that Colin Firth’s job? hen-pecked art consultant? aren’t there much better ways to pass off a counterfeit painting? a cowgirl, really?) that it’s impossible to focus on what director Michael Hoffman seems to think is the real draw of the movie: sub-Mr. Bean-level slapstick.

That’s nothing against Mr. Bean, because in a Mr. Bean movie, you actually know what you’re getting. There’s going to be a board meeting with some very important people and Mr. Bean is going to get a paperclip lodged in his nostril and eventually everyone will laugh and wave their monogrammed hankies in approval while eating hasty pudding. ‘Gambit’s set ups are all wildly complex even though the payoff is Colin Firth’s pants falling down. He even manages to end up outside on a ledge without them, can you imagine?? A whole town who might see a grown man in his under-trousers, talk about stakes! There’s also a scene where the bellboys think “The Major” is a euphemism for Colin Firth’s penis. Another scene where Colin Firth has trouble putting together a chair. There’s a big business meeting with the Japanese, a fox hunt, and a high-larious honeypot love triangle between Rickman, Cowboy Cam, and Klutzy Colin, who finally realize they’re in love, wouldn’t you know.

Here’s an example of one exchange:

RICKMAN: Do you ride?

FIRTH: Good God no. …That is I have ridden. Birthday party. Ponies, they had ponies, little Shetland ponies, we traipsed around in a circle in the garden. Six, seven years old? …It was my friend Bobby Montane’s birthday party. He’s a speech pathologist now. How well I remember it… Made a deep impression….

RICKMAN: Okay, Deane, is there something I can help you with?

FIRTH: Yes, sir, there is! You see I snuck an advanced peek, as I said, at the Horse & Hunt, and I was struck most particularly by the piece on this PJ Puznowski, the Texan horse person. …Equestrienne, not a mutant or a… mythical creature. One imagines… um, the bosoms of a woman and the hindquarters of uh… at any rate, did you happen to see it?


I don’t know what the hell was going on here. Best I can tell, the Coen Brothers tried to write a ‘Big Lebowski’-esque screwball goose chase, realized it wasn’t coming together, and passed it off on Michael Hoffman. Who also couldn’t make it come together, and instead shot it like an episode of ‘Three’s Company’ set in Victorian England, where a stuttering man in his boxer shorts was the pinnacle of comedy.

While I would never try to convince you that watching a movie like ‘Gambit’ isn’t a waste of time, stillborn movies like this are kind of interesting in the same way as an abandoned subdivision. You can walk around gawking at the rotting stucco and try to imagine the banner picture on some optimistic developer’s business plan. It’s not “funny,” per se, but it is sort of bittersweet, every joke attempt like some McMansion skeleton in a wasteland. I wouldn’t recommend it as a movie, more of a whatsit, a curio, the comedic equivalent of third world infrastructure.

Vince Mancini is a writer and comedian living in San Francisco. You can find more of his work on FilmDrunk, the Uproxx network, and all over his mom’s refrigerator. Fan FilmDrunk on Facebook, find the latest movie reviews here.