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Dirty Rotten Scoundrels (1988)
by Kevin Conner
IMDB Entry and source image credit: http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0095031/
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“Dirty Rotten Scoundrels” is a movie about despicable confidence artists who take other people’s money, and it’s fun! This movie is fun because you can actually enjoy the idea that Michael Caine’s victims deserve to be taken (as they, themselves, are despicable). You can actually enjoy the idea that Michael Caine is teaching Steve Martin a lesson (who is a slimeball). You can also actually enjoy the ending.
Lawrence Jamieson (Michael Caine) is a confidence man who enjoys taking slimy rich broads for every penny he can, while keeping them on his hook. On his way back to his villa, he runs into a low rent conman by the name of Freddy Benson (Steve Martin), who applauds himself for taking $20 from random women every few hours or so. Lawrence can’t stand this (especially since Freddy is conning women who should not be conned), and tries a number of methods to eject Freddy from his home and territory. Freddy beats each of Lawrence’s attempts through dumb luck and bad decisions, until he eventually figures out what’s been going on. Eventually Freddy comes up with blackmail on Lawrence, forcing Lawrence to take him under his wing and teach him how to make the big bucks. Lawrence sees this as an opportunity to end Freddy’s involvement, and things go well until Freddy decides to break up the act. It’s then that the competition between the two really begins, as they tag a mark in a bet to determine who should leave or stay in the town.
All of this buildup happens within the first quarter of the movie, and while enjoyable, it doesn’t even touch the twists, cons and con-backs between the two until the fantastic ending. There is so much more to the movie that I have left out for the sole purpose of not wanting to risk ruining enjoyable spoilers.
The script and direction is wonderful, and while it may touch on a tense moment that could easily blow the scene, the writers and the director (Frank Oz) both knew when to pull you back just before it became too much. The sound is excellent, and so is the editing. In fact, the editing hits the comedic moments right on the head, a difficulty in comedic timing. The only complaint I have, literally, the only complaint, is that Steve Martin hams up his act like he did in “The Jerk”. In some ways this is good, because Steve Martin’s character is a terrible conman, but at the same time it kills some of the believability that he could’ve lasted more than 5 minutes as any conman. I do believe he should’ve dialed it down just a bit, but, it is Steve Martin, and it is still an enjoyable performance.
Many people who have been conned may find the subject objectionable, just as those who are victims of mafia violence would not like movies which glorify mafia related violence, that’s because the characters are glorified. Probably the only defense of this subject matter is that Michael Caine’s character (Lawrence) really does only target those “normal people” who are completely slimy themselves. There are plenty of despicable people I have met who need to be treated to his kind of con, and it’s sort of a ‘Robin Hood’ like fantasy to imagine them being taken. I use ‘Robin Hood’ loosely, because Lawrence keeps the money for himself. But, at least he’s cultured.
All in all, I think this is a great movie for its genre. Every level of production was well sculpted, with top notch (not perfect, but top notch) acting as icing on the cake. If you can find some amount of enjoyment in rooting for the rise and fall of conmen in a comedic atmosphere, then you will probably enjoy this film. It’s one of Frank Oz’s top ranking gems, and it was complimented with an equally expertly crafted script! I am sure some people may not enjoy this movie, but if you can take “Hogan’s Heroes” style comedy (which did feature a number of cons), and the subject (conmen whom you wish to see succeed and fail), then you should probably put this on your viewing list.
Script: 3 3/4
Acting: 3 1/2
Overall (rounded up) 4 out of 4
Cast and Production Information
(with many more)