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Wayback Wednesday: Dirty Rotten Scoundrels (1988)

Michael Caine and Steve Martin can charm the pants off me any day.

I have a lot to thank my Grandma for. Sure, there’s the unconditional love and support which is pretty great, but I think the best thing she’s ever done for me is introduce me to a handful of amazing movies at a young age. Movies that would not only become some of my all-time favourites, but also influence the kinds of movies I’m drawn to even to this day. On her couch, my brother and I would spend hours re-watching Barefoot in the Park (1967), Jurassic Park (1993), Titanic (1997), The Mummy (1999), Miss Congeniality (2000), and Dirty Rotten Scoundrels (1988). Looking back, almost none of these were particularly great choices for small children but hey, I wouldn’t be who I am today without being exposed to countless viewings. Thanks Grandma!

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Credit: / Orion Pictures

A remake of the Marlon Brando and David Niven comedy Bedtime Story (1964), Dirty Rotten Scoundrels follows the dastardly exploits of two con men: The sophisticated Lawrence Jamieson, played by Michael Caine, and the uncouth Freddy Benson, played by Steve Martin. Though Jamieson initially takes Benson under his wing, the student soon faces off against the master as the pair compete to see who can swindle $50,000 out of naive heiress Janet Colgate.

You guys, I love this movie so much. As soon as the theme music started playing, I was instantly transported to nights at my Grandma’s house and all the happy memories I had of watching this movie came rushing back. Obviously we all have childhood movies that our perfect in our eyes because of nostalgia, but Dirty Rotten Scoundrels is a genuinely great movie. It totally holds up! A sharply funny script and an engaging story full of comedic twists will delight first or longtime viewers, and leaves me struggling to find a flaw in this practically perfect movie. Alright, if I had to nit-pick, I suppose I’d say that the convenience of all these wealthy women falling for Lawrence and Freddy’s outlandish and obviously fake ruses. You know what though? It’s excusable because the movie is so delightfully playful and over-the-top that you suspend your disbelief and get swept up in the silliness of this 80s masterpiece. Really, this movie works best in a 20th Century setting. It’s hard to make this type of story work in today’s day and age and I just don’t think that it’s plausible. It’s for that reason I have a severe lack of faith in the upcoming remake The Hustle (2019), which will be released this week. That being said, if Dirty Rotten Scoundrels itself is a fantastic remake, maybe there’s hope for Anne Hathaway and Rebel Wilson?

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Credit: / Orion Pictures

So, let’s talk about this cast. Sizzling with chemistry and perfectly meeting the demands of the story’s madcap premise, you can tell every actor was enjoying themselves during filming. Caine and Martin are especially enjoyable in roles that are tailor-made for their own brands of humour. Caine is witty, dapper, and quick to deliver a sly insult or condescending remark, highlighting just how capable the Academy Award-winning actor is when it comes to comedy. If Caine’s humour is subdued and delicate, than Martin’s is loud and brash. Gruff, low-brow, and quintessentially American, Martin is the perfect companion to Caine and together the pair craft characters that are so damn fun and entertaining to watch. I mean, I could watch an entire movie starring Martin as Ruprecht, the uncivilized and childish younger brother Lawrence fabricates as one of his cons. It’s a classic comedy bit, and the characterization of Ruprecht is a smart move as it showcases just how skilled Martin is at creating a wildly imaginative comedy character and executing it perfectly. If you don’t get a kick out of Ruprecht, I have nothing to say to you.

Acting opposite Caine and Martin is Glenne Headly as Janet Colgate and I’m ashamed to say that this movie is the only work of hers that I’m familiar with. It’s a shame because Headly is so effervescent, charming, and in this role, wonderfully innocent. Everything she says or does is so campy and lovably endearing that you can’t help but be convinced of her naiveté. Ooooooohhhh, the twists in this movie…I won’t spoil anything but I’ll just say this: Dirty Rotten Scoundrels certainly keeps you on your toes and admittedly, it wasn’t until a couple years ago that I think I truly understood everything that went down. The movie isn’t that complicated, I just get caught up in the fabulous funniness of it all and wind up losing track of the sepcifics. Hello, cameos from Frances Conroy, Dana Ivey, and Barbara Harris as LADY FANNY OF OMAHA? Of course I’m distracted!

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Credit: / Orion Pictures

You would think that having main characters who are literally described as being “dirty rotten scoundrels” would make Lawrence and Freddy difficult to root for, but that’s not the case at all. Though certainly wily, immoral and untrustworthy, they’re never malicious or harmful. Lawrence and Freddy treat each con they pull like a game rather than a crime with serious consequences, and it’s nothing short of delightful to watch them get away with one hilarious scheme after another. I credit a lot of the humour and fun characters to the masterful script. Not only is it a sensational piece of work that juggles theatrics and camp (anyone else shocked there’s a musical adaptation of this movie?) I think what I love most about the writing of Dirty Rotten Scoundrels is how it allows its stars to try on multiple characters, all of whom they play to rousing success. From Ruprecht, to U.S. Navy veteran Benson, to Dr. Emil Schaffhausen, watching this movie is like watching a classic episode of Saturday Night Live (1975 – present).

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Credit: / Orion Pictures

It probably doesn’t come to the minds of most when they think of classic movies from the 1980s, but for me, Dirty Rotten Scoundrels is one of the most scandalously funny and uproarious movies that the decade has to offer. Endlessly enjoyable and terrifically twisty, I can’t recommend this movie enough. Check it out! It’s pretty hard to find though. Okay, because I recently bought the DVD after years of searching, I’m officially inviting everyone over to my house for a screening. Just remember to bring wine.

Have you seen Dirty Rotten Scoundrels?

Let me know in the comments or on social media.


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