From “Good grief” to “Oh snap!” Dirty Rotten Scoundrels slowly climbed my “like” scale the longer I watched. I love Michael Caine, and his portrayal of Lawrence Jamieson is despicably suave in the most lovable way. He pulls cons specifically targeted at rich, lonely women, and then escapes to his French villa for a long soak in culture and class. Lawrence’s world runs like a Swiss watch – until Freddy (Steve Martin) comes along. Freddy’s thieving technique is based less on poise and more on pity. Rather than charming his targets he stumbles awkwardly into their laps, grasping at as many pockets as he can. Then he throws his earning around like a five year old with bubbles. These two build a professional relationship which is about as amiable as Dopey and the Wicked Queen.
Dirty Rotten Scoundrels has all the signs of an 80’s comedy classic: montages, a charming gentleman and an over-the-top moron, casual gender bashing, and a solid colour base of periwinkle and pastels. Caine and Martin are the kings of smooth talking improvisation, although both handle it in completely different ways: Lawrence pulls out his backup cards with patience and experience while Freddy flies around by the seat of his flaming pants. So what happens when both thieves go after the same score, each trying to point Janet’s (Glenne Headly) heavy pockets towards their general direction? We get one sneaky and resourceful thief with a conscience facing off against one loud mouthed idiot with nothing better to do.
You think this act can only go so far – which is why it takes some warming up time. The plot zigzags through random cons and sensei-grasshopper moments, taking its time with the initial meeting, the differences in personalities, the funny coincidences, and the establishment of solid character foundations before we finally get to Lawrence and Freddy’s grand competition. They eventually battle it out to claim the purse (and heart) of the lovely, single, wealthy Janet. In essence, the perfect score. From this point on Dirty Rotten Scoundrels is a priceless beehive of face-palms and quick saves. Lawrence and Freddy constantly derail each other’s plans and trample the other’s pride to gain the upper hand. “Too far” is not far enough. Janet, meanwhile, is the sweetest little American girl you ever did see, and is completely oblivious to their screw ups and checkmates.
Dirty Rotten Scoundrels is charming once it gets the ball rolling, and is an easy movie to love the more you watch it. Freddy really does try to throw the laughs in your face, being a yammering imbecile, but he is gently balanced by Lawrence’s sophistication. For a light, classic comedy, Dirty Rotten Scoundrels is a 7.5/10.