I’m not blind to its shortcomings, but The Impostors is one of my most favorite movie comfort foods. That I find it so funny and purely enjoyable is really saying something, considering its milieu is the joblessness, desperation, and looming international conflict of The Great Depression.
The pitch: a loving homage to old-school Hollywood screwball comedies, with an all-star cast of 90s New York City indie personalities. It has the feel of a filmed stage play (like Peter Bogdanovich’s Noises Off) crossed with the loosey-goosey, making-it-up-as-they-go-along feel of a Marks Brothers or Laurel & Hardy romp. The stagey production values become a virtue as the same few sets are redressed over and over to amusing effect. Finally, the entire soundstage-bound facade is unveiled during a celebratory dance number that breaks the fourth wall. The Impostors is a refreshingly affectionate pastiche, and not satiric or ironic in the least.
The freewheeling farce is above all a love letter to the craft of acting. Arthur (Stanley Tucci) and Maurice (Oliver Platt) are two perpetually out-of-work actors so enamored of their chosen profession that they will not consider pursuing any other line of work even when faced with starvation. Their daily routine consists of staging acting exercises for themselves in public, duping passersby into serving as their participatory audience, like a prototype for the modern-day pranksters Improv Everywhere.
An escalating series of misadventures finally delivers them into a scenario in which their acting skills for once become useful: the opportunity to portray fabulously rich cruise ship passengers, to save the day, and of course to die magnificently heartbreaking deaths while doing so. What Arthur and Maurice yearn for, even more than to eat, is the opportunity to die in front of an audience. Not for nothing is their toast “To life… and its many deaths.”
It’s worth noting that most of the legitimate passengers are anything but; most have either lost fortunes during the Depression, are conspiring to steal new ones, or plot to wreak terrorist havoc in the name of fascism. Almost everyone’s an impostor.
Tucci’s paean to acting attracted an ensemble cast to die for, including a dream team of 1990s indie superstars including Lily Taylor, Steve Buscemi, Hope Davis, Isabella Rossellini, Tony Shalhoub, Alison Janney, Alfred Molina, Richard Jenkins, and Campbell Scott (who shamelessly steals and runs away with the movie with a sublimely odd character that answers the unasked question: what if Marvin the Martian were a lovestruck Nazi?). And there’s still room in the souffle for wildcards like a pre-Lost Michael Emmerson, Scottish comedian Billy Connolly, and a cameo by a manic Woody Allen in a superfluous skit that could easily have been cut.
The Impostors apparently landed with a bit of a thud after the critical and commercial success of Tucci and Scott’s justly acclaimed Big Night (which I also love, not least for containing cinema’s all-time greatest omelette-making scene).