Friday, October 16, 1998

Hidden joys

Movie: The Impostors

Posted on Fri, Oct 16, 1998 at 4:00 AM

****
Our Rating: 4.00

Sure, Stanley Tucci and Oliver Platt, stars of the manic Depression-era comedy "The Impostors," share the same first names and body types as a certain pair of silent-to-talkie favorites. But it's the bumbling slapstick and friendly rivalry offered by Tucci (who wrote and directed the film) and Platt that's particularly reminiscent of the screen duo Laurel and Hardy, as well as the Marx Brothers and even the Keystone Kops.

Tucci and Platt, as unemployed New York actors Arthur and Maurice, in fact open the fall's funniest movie (thus far) with a sequence devoid of all sound except for the bouncy score. The two stage a confrontation at a restaurant that graduates from sniping over bad habits to an argument over a woman to a knife fight that ends tragically.

Fellow diners are horrified, and Maurice turns his final moments into an exaggerated ballet of chest-clutching demise. "You stole my death," Arthur says later, as the two recount their latest public charade and lament their prospects for work.

Another such put-on results in tickets to a Broadway rendition of "Hamlet" featuring celebrated English actor Jeremy Burtom (Alfred Molina), a pompous alcoholic who causes his struggling counterparts to roll their eyes and make mock-vomiting motions. Burtom, overhearing their nasty appraisal of his performance, takes enormous offense and enlists the cops in heated pursuit of his tormentors, who escape by hiding in a shipboard crate.

Arthur and Maurice become inadvertent stowaways on a luxury liner, while a long list of cast-against-type actors -- several of whom were seen in "Big Night," Tucci's directorial debut -- play the passengers.

Steve Buscemi goes into overdrive as a suicidal big-band singer who bawls while singing "The Nearness of You" but finds true love with the dour daughter (Hope Davis) of a money-hungry widow (Dana Ivey). Campbell Scott is a Nazi-in-training head steward with eyes for sweet stewardess Lily (Lili Taylor), who in turn has fallen for Italian ship detective Marco (Matt McGrath). Also figuring into the fun are a deposed queen (Isabella Rossellini), a dastardly first mate (Tony Shalhoub), and an oversexed tennis pro (Billy Connolly) who touts the glories of "Greek love."

Burtom, too, is onboard, and Arthur and Maurice spend the trip avoiding him, foiling evil plans and generally causing a ruckus. "The Impostors," though, is greater than the sum of those parts. Its palpable electricity shocks with funny lines, near-perfect timing and readily apparent chemistry. Such synchronicity is rare to behold.

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