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Viewer Guide: Dirty Rotten Scoundrels and The Brothers Bloom

May 19, 2021 | Richard Peña


Dirty Rotten Scoundrels (1988)

This week’s classic is Dirty Rotten Scoundrels, the 1988 crime caper comedy directed by Frank Oz.

In the most charming role of his mid-career, Michael Caine stars as Lawrence Jamieson, a self-described widowed prince living in glamorous exile on the French Riviera, yet still secretly helping out his embattled countrymen back home. Or at least, that’s who he wants the wealthy women he encounters to think he is as he subtly persuades them to part with their jewelry and cash in support of his cause. In truth, Lawrence’s “cause” is himself, and underneath his debonair charm he’s just a con man, but a con man of the classiest variety, who deposits his ill-gotten gains in a Swiss bank account and enjoys a lifestyle that would be the envy of any one-percenter. But one evening while training home from Zurich, Lawrence notices a much cruder scammer in the form of Steve Martin as Freddy Benson, whose story of a “sick grandmother” is a dead give-away to Lawrence’s expert ear. Suspecting that Freddy is the mysterious new swindler known as “the Jackal” who’s been poaching on his rarefied turf, Lawrence quickly sets about ejecting Freddy from the Riviera’s gilded hunting grounds. Except it turns out that Freddy isn’t quite as gullible as Lawrence thinks he is, setting the scene for an unexpected mentorship that soon escalates into a high-stakes competition.

Also starring is Glenne Headly as an American “soap queen” heiress, with Dana Ivey, Frances Conroy and Barbara Harris in cameo roles as some of Lawrence’s other unsuspecting victims.

A remake of Bedtime Story, a film from 1964 starring David Niven, Marlon Brando and Shirley Jones, Dirty Rotten Scoundrels was originally developed—believe it or not—as a vehicle for Mick Jagger and David Bowie. After Jagger and Bowie dropped out, the other stars considered for the role of Lawrence included Monty Python alumni John Cleese, Michael Palin and Eric Idle, with Eddie Murphy and Richard Dreyfuss proposed for Freddy. Shot on various French Riviera locations, director Frank Oz sealed the deal with Michael Caine to star with the promise of a three month Côte d’Azur residency. And in order to showcase Steve Martin’s gift for stand-up comedy, some scenes—including Freddy’s brief stint in jail—were reportedly improvised; even the ending was not completely finalized until the day of shooting. Adapted into a successful Broadway musical in 2005, the “scoundrels” returned to movie screens in female form in 2019 with Anne Hathaway and Rebel Wilson in The Hustle.


This week’s indie is The Brothers Bloom, a 2008 action-adventure comedy-drama written and directed by Rian Johnson.

In a stylized prologue, we meet the young Brothers Bloom as they cycle through a series of Foster care homes—38 of them to be exact—before the boys happen upon the “philosophy”—so to speak—that becomes their roadmap through life: the art of deception, not simply for larcenous gain, but as a way to invent new lives, and become the people their actual circumstances won’t permit. Jumping ahead some 25 years, Mark Ruffalo and Adrien Brody take over as older brother Stephen and younger brother Bloom, with the duo now established among the world’s premier con men, assisted in their schemes by Bang Bang, a Japanese explosives expert played by Rinko Kikuchi. But for Bloom, success has not led to happiness, only a weariness at being a pawn in Stephen’s elaborately plotted stings. Yearning for something real in his life, Bloom tries to walk away, but Stephen tracks his brother down for one final con operation with an eccentric young heiress named Penelope, played by Rachel Weisz. Initially reluctant to target a woman, Bloom nevertheless finds himself fascinated by Penelope—as well as by her quirky array of hobbies. Deceived into thinking the trio are smugglers, Penelope enthusiastically joins the brothers’ ranks, and the group sets off on an international adventure that eventually has everyone guessing what’s fact or fiction.

Also featured in cameo roles are Robbie Coltrane as a so-called Belgian “Curator,” and Maximilian Schell in his final English-language film as “Diamond Dog,” the brothers’ former mentor turned mortal enemy.

The Brothers Bloom was director Rian Johnson’s follow-up feature to his acclaimed debut film Brick, which had been inspired by the hardboiled detective fiction of Dashiell Hammett. Reportedly taking inspiration for his Brothers Bloom characters from James Joyce’s Ulysses, Johnson’s cinematic influences on his script included The Sting, Dirty Rotten Scoundrels, Paper Moon, The Conformist and 8 ½. Johnson had originally intended Mark Ruffalo to play Bloom and Adrien Brody to play Stephen, but switched roles to better suit each actor’s personality. During the pre-production rehearsal period, Rachel Weisz had to sufficiently master Penelope’s eclectic range of hobbies in order to be able to perform them on camera, with Penelope’s card trick requiring a month of practice and some 11 takes to film. Rian Johnson’s subsequent theatrical films include Looper in 2012, the international blockbuster Star Wars, Episode VIII – The Last Jedi in 2017, and the 2019 sleeper hit “whodunit,” Knives Out. In 2013, Johnson was honored with a DGA Award for his direction of the acclaimed Breaking Bad episode, “Fifty-One.”

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