As poise meets pissant, Dirty Rotten Scoundrels (1988) asserts itself as a tale of two cons who fight for vanity on the French Riviera, where the rich are so painfully unaware of others who extort them for the lavishness they do not deserve. Relishing in the shiny waters that breed rich society dames, empty minds, and deep pockets, the film brings about the most unexpected rivals turned accomplices, turned back again to rivals.
The it-takes-one-to-know-one dynamic shows in this duo of con men as they hustle for the good life. Lawrence Jamieson (Michael Caine) is a suave, elegant playboy who uses the art of seduction as a lucrative business. Donning a grey-tinged, pencil-thin mustache, Lawrence is presented as the central character of any romance novel—an exiled ‘prince charming’ whose charisma is so thick it distorts the trickery of his ways from the eyes of any woman he encounters. His rouse was almost foolproof, until the jarringly contrasting American saunters onto the vacation hotspot, vying for the same wealth as the stylish debonair. Freddie Benson (Steve Martin) is a con artist who, to Lawrence’s horror, preys on his vulnerable targets and slanders their shared craft of manipulation with his outlandish approach and capers. Working on the lower end of the scam ladder, Freddie accepts donations for his allegedly ailing grandmother. By nickel-and-diming the women Lawrence had planned to bilk for larger sums, Freddie rippled the waters of the businessman’s placid cove.
According to Lawrence, shameful crooks like Freddie pollute the water for sophisticated con men like himself, where he once feasted on gullible rich women who wiggle their toes in the azure waters of Beaumont-sur-Mer in the South of France. Regardless of their tactics, Lawrence and Freddie are criminals by nature. They are bred to believe manipulation is the golden rule, as they both cock their heads in puzzlement to any decent human sentiments. Their corruption permeates in glorious thickness, like sharks in water waiting for the unexpectant toe. This similarity and flagrant amorality convince Freddie to threaten Lawrence, saying he’ll blow the whistle on him, unless the senior agrees to teach him what he knows about the old-worldly, savoir-fare mastery of the art of con men.
In comedic montages of lessons from the expert to the apprentice, Lawrence teaches Freddie how to glidingly saunter to and fro, how to hold a drink and lean nonchalantly against a wall, as well as how to rearrange flowers that will cause unexpecting women to lower their awareness of the con artist’s self-imposed, surface-level trickery.
Realizing that Freddie is more trouble than he thought, Lawrence decides to work with him out of desperation. They make a wager of $50,000 on who will be the one to successfully con the rich American, Headly (Janet Colgate). The slapstick comedy quickly transgresses into a long wrestling match between the two feuding confident men as they surpass the other with attempts to outsmart the surprisingly elusive Headly. It is a fight for dominance of this territory with their pride at stake. After much outrageous tomfoolery, the two realize through their fight for superiority that they are certainly not the wisest cons in the area.
Director Frank Oz successfully brings out the devilish tang to the machinations, while the actors bring a sense of spoiled grandeur to their characters’ mingy, near-sighted souls. The buoyant script is a clever update of the painfully forgettable 1964 flick Bedtime Story, starring Marlon Brando and David Niven. With the original branded by The Daily Express as “the most vulgar and embarrassing film of the year,” Dirty Rotten Scoundrels has definitely mastered the skill to charm an audience.