The pros of Oz's movie are these two on-the-mark con artists. Light, diverting and unassuming, Dirty Rotten Scoundrels - a title that you might think born of the avaricious Eighties - is actually a defiantly old-fashioned piece. If you imagine how David Niven might have brought his suave charms to something similar in the art of conning a con man in the Sixties, you'd be absolutely right. Dirty Rotten Scoundrels is an update of Bedtime Story, a breezy 1964 comedy Niven made with none other than Marlon Brando.
The updating turned out to be a cross-generational exercise with generally happy results. Dale Launer, who wrote the script for Ruthless People, teamed up with Stanley Shapiro and Paul Henning, the pair who penned the original film for Niven.
As confidence tricksters, Benson and Jamieson are two crooks separated by a common language and calling. Jamieson approaches a mark like an artist confronting a blank canvas and lives as if the crime is not as important as the style and elan with which it is executed. On the other hand, Benson, who left all trace of scruple back in third grade, is a man with a walking shtick.
Put him anywhere near a gullible, sympathetic woman and out pours the tale of his dying grandmother who can only be saved by an urgent and expensive operation.
Dirty Rotten Scoundrels ambles along amiably enough as Benson and Jamieson pursue their separate prey, but the movie doesn't come into its own until they settle on the same target. Beaumont-sur-Mer may be a sure thing for Jamieson, but the town isn't big enough for two guys who make Joe Isuzu seem guilty of an occasional exaggeration.
To settle their differences - and decide who should have sole control of the rich Riviera pickings - the con men show some confidence in themselves. Whoever can extract $50,000 from a visiting American soap opera queen (Glenne Headly) will be the winner.
Martin was last paired with Frank Oz in Little Shop of Horrors, in which he did some screamingly funny extractions as the crazed dentist driven mad by a masochistic patient. He's in top form as the outrageously callous and manipulative Benson. When he can't remember the name of a man who could bail him out of jail, Martin doesn't just slap his forehead in frustration. He becomes the wild and crazy guy of his early days on Saturday Night Live.
Caine, whose skill and reputation as a comic actor are undermined by the lame junk his workaholic habits lead him to (Without a Clue is the latest example), creates some real chemistry with Martin in what is, after all, just a frothy farce. The scenes in which Martin puts on a war hero's uniform and takes to a wheelchair in a plea for sympathy, and Caine counters by posing as a sadistic psychiatrist sent to treat him, are a joy that make up for the flatter stretches of Dirty Rotten Scoundrels. And let's be honest. In a season when most of the big-ticket comedies (Twins, My Stepmother Is an Alien and Scrooged) have been flatter than old club soda, it's a pleasure to have a couple of smooth lounge lizards around to serve up some champagne. It may not be Dom Perignon, but it's certainly drinkable.
DIRTY ROTTEN SCOUNDRELS * * *
Produced by Bernard Williams; directed by Frank Oz; written by Dale Launer, Stanley Shapiro and Paul Henning; photography by Michael Ballhaus; music by Miles Goodman; distributed by Orion Pictures Corp.
Running time: 1 hour, 41 mins.
Freddy Benson - Steve Martin
Lawrence Jamieson - Michael Caine
Janet Colgate - Glenne Headly
Inspector Andre - Anton Rodgers
Fanny Eubanks - Barbara Harris
Parent's guide: PG (nothing offensive)
Showing at: Area theaters