The chief selling point for Gambit is not the cast, or the director (unless you're one of the few people who really loved Michael Hoffman's The Last Station) but the screenplay, which bears the name of Joel and Ethan Coen. They have written a remake of the 1966 film, in which Michael Caine and Shirley MacLaine played a pair of crooks, but the fact that the Coens have handed this script off to another filmmaker rather than opting to direct it themselves suggests it may not up to their usual standards. It doesn't take long for that suspicion to solidify into fact as this film lurches from one awkward comic set-piece to another, struggling to raise more than a handful of chuckles from a narrative that feels like a first draft in dire need of revision.
Many of those chucklesome moments come courtesy of Colin Firth, who is ideally cast as British art curator Harry Deane, a man not quite as smart and debonair as he imagines himself to be. Gambit opens with Deane in Texas, on the trailer of rodeo rider PJ Puznowski (Cameron Diaz), whom he intends to involve in a con that will trick Harry's obnoxious boss Shabandar (Alan Rickman) into buying a counterfeit Monet. He explains his plan to PJ, and over the next ten minutes we see that plan being executed with consummate ease and professionalism, but everything we see is unfolding inside Harry's head. Harry's scheme isn't as foolproof as he thinks, Shabandar isn't as gullible as he thinks, and PJ isn't quite the smooth operator that he expects.
This structural trick is a neat idea – one of the film's neatest – but as it's lifted wholesale from the original movie it leaves you wondering what this picture has to offer that's fresh. The answer is: not a great deal, with most of the gags and stereotypical characterisations feeling like relics from the 1960s carelessly reheated. The film's biggest set-piece involves Firth being caught trouserless in a series of compromising situations as he snoops around the Savoy and clambers precariously from one window to another. Firth's attempt to maintain a dignified air in farcical conditions ekes a few mild laughs out of this setup, while Julian Rhind-Tutt's perfectly judged reaction shots score a couple more, but the sequence has nowhere to go, and when a punchline is required all it can offer is a fart gag. It might be unfair to expect Coen-like precision from any directors taking on their material, but Hoffman's heavy hand is all wrong for this; what should feel tight and manic instead feels obvious, flabby and lifeless.
Gambit collapse completely in its dismayingly lame third act, but the actors deserve some credit for full applying themselves under trying circumstances. Rickman's dry delivery is perfect for Shabandar and Tom Courtney is good value with the little he's given to do, but a couple of the actors attack their roles with a little too much misplaced enthusiasm. Stanley Tucci's camp German art expert is not this usually reliable actor's finest hour, while Cameron Diaz's best moments in the film occur within its first twenty minutes, before she opens her mouth and starts to speak. It's all downhill from there.
Could the Coens, or any other filmmakers, have made Gambit work? I'm sure they could – the central plot is a solid enough basis for a good farce – but the effort and inspiration required to do so is completely lacking. This film required a rewrite and a change of personnel on both sides of the camera before being ready for production; instead it has limped into cinemas half-baked and looking very sorry for itself. The posters for Gambit feature the names of the Coen brothers prominently, while the director's credit is nowhere to be seen, but enticing viewers with the promise of their level of excellence may be the biggest con trick of all.