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Stanley Tucci's 'The Impostors' Is Deceptively Charming.

By Stacey Richter

OCTOBER 5, 1998:  HERE'S ANOTHER ADORABLE movie from Stanley Tucci, the co-writer and director of Big Night, and an actor best known for portraying a variety of psychokillers on TV. With The Impostors, Tucci proves he's totally not a psychokiller; actually he's a very nice guy with a love of acting and old movies who also has a real talent for making light, nostalgic films complete with people jumping into crates to hide from the police and silly chases across the decks of an ocean liner.

Tucci can delight with such clichés because he approaches them with intelligence and wit. The title sequence sets the tone: Two haughty fellows meet in a café and take an instant dislike to each other; before we know it, the encounter has degenerated into fisticuffs, then to knives. The thin man stabs the fat one, who staggers to a grisly, tablecloth-dragging death. This all occurs without dialogue, silent-movie style, with the credits interrupting like intertitles.

The next scene has the same two men sitting in a small apartment, drinking tea. The thin one, Arthur (Tucci) is depressed, because it was his turn to die and the fatter one, Maurice (Oliver Platt) stole his glory. His friend is seized by deep remorse, and the two talk it out tenderly, like lovers, which they may or may not be. (They certainly are close, and they cavort together in their underwear, but they sleep in separate beds in 1940s style chasteness). This juxtaposition of over-the-top slapstick with subtle moments of affection continues throughout the film, and accounts for much of its charm. It's sort of a Jean Renoir meets Laurel and Hardy effect.

Arthur and Maurice are actors, of course, and out-of-work ones at that. They form a sweetly inseparable team (a nice change from the aggressive friendships of buddy movies); even when they go for auditions, they're auditioned together. But they are also literally starving together. Hunger--and a chain of suitably kooky events--leads them to an evening at the theater, where they witness a performance by Jeremy Burtom (Alfred Molina), the most over-rated and overly made-up actor of their time. Rather improbably (but that's the whole point of this story) Arthur and Maurice end up inadvertently insulting the great man (who's also a great drunk) and getting themselves chased through the streets by some dim-witted policemen.

And so they jump into a crate, and end up on the deck of, naturally, an ocean liner. They try to disembark, and of course their plans are foiled--by a Nazi-style concierge with little round glasses, for one. It's when Arthur and Maurice find themselves stranded and hunted on the ocean liner that The Impostors really hits its stride. Tucci's background as an actor shines through in the script, and his skill becomes evident when dealing with the interwoven destinies of his ensemble cast.

We're introduced to the eccentric passengers one by one, as if each were a different animal boarding Noah's ark. There's a depressed singer named Happy (Steve Buscemi), a mysteriously veiled queen (Isabella Rossellini) and a chirpy social director (Lili Taylor), among others. It's only a matter of time before they're all inextricably intertwined, falling in and out of love, etc. Then there's the matter of a saboteur's bomb.

Arthur and Maurice, meanwhile, are being chased all over the ship by the evil actor Burtom who, wouldn't you know it, turns out to be one of the passengers too! It seems that hell hath no fury like an egomaniacal actor insulted, and he's determined that the stowaways should be apprehended, "dead or alive!" Disguises are employed, and hijinks ensue, including a man in a woman's dress and a ripped off toupee--the old comic standards, and it's a tribute to Tucci and his cast that it's all funny and fresh. The big, corny slapstick moments are balanced by subtle acting and a kind of sweetness that's rarely found in the movies these days--at least not between men. Yet Tucci and Platt have a breezy rapport that seems sincere and winning.

And, like in Big Night, The Impostors has a scene at the end where all the players, with all their romances fulfilled and their misunderstandings resolved, dance around the boat happily, following Maurice and Arthur. It's about togetherness, darn it! So grab your best friend, even if don't have a sexually ambiguous relationship with them, and get to the theater! It's not often that a movie this charming comes down the pike.

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