As with any actor whose work I love, there are films that stand out as particularly great in the career of Steve Martin, and one of those films is Dirty Rotten Scoundrels.
There are many great things about Dirty Rotten Scoundrels. Michael Caine is a perfect foil for Martin, whose work as nascent con man Freddy Benson is inspired. Frank Oz does a terrific job of creating this romantic, beautiful French fantasyland where people are going to believe the incredible lies told by Freddy and Caine’s master bullshit artist Lawrence Jamieson. Glenne Headly gives one of her most nimble performances as Janet Colgate, the poor defenseless tourist who ends up targeted by Freddy and Lawrence. Ian McDiarmid, best known to the fanboy nation as Emperor Palpatine, is dry and deadly as Arthur, Lawrence’s manservant. Miles Goodman’s score is terrific, one of the great comedy scores of the ‘80s, and Michael Ballhaus soaks everything in a beautiful sun-drenched quality with his cinematography.
And, of course, that script is fantastic. Dale Launer wrote the film and was the only writer who worked with Frank Oz. So why does the screenplay credit read “Written by Dale Launer and Stanley Shapiro & Paul Henning”?
Because it’s a remake. But more than that, because it’s almost word-for-word.
Most of the time, you’ll either get a “based on” credit or maybe a “story by” credit for the original writers when you’re remaking something, but this is a shared credit for screenplay, and it’s actually a good call. While it was Launer who had the idea of updating the film, and he was the one who wrote the script that Oz shot, he absolutely used whole chunks of the original in his script. And why not? It’s a great script. And for those of you who are just learning that Dirty Rotten Scoundrels is a remake, or for those who have never seen the original, let me urge you to do so. It’s called Bedtime Story, and it stars Marlon Brando as Freddy Benson, David Niven as Lawrence Jameson, and Shirley Jones as Janet Walker.
When Dirty Rotten Scoundrels came out in 1987, I tracked down the original on VHS, and I was sort of blown away by it. One of the things that made me laugh so hard in the Steve Martin version is the scene involving Ruprecht The Monkey Boy, a truly deranged comic creation that felt like a perfect fit for Martin. I assumed it was largely his idea, perhaps even improvised. And then I saw Marlon Brando play Ruprecht the Monkey Boy and my whole world turned inside out:
The news today that Rebel Wilson may star in a gender-flipped version of the film seems like a pretty clever way of doing it. I thought Wilson did very good work in this spring’s How To Be Single, and the right director and the right script is all it’s going to take for her to have a monster hit of her own. When Dale Launer set up Dirty Rotten Scoundrels, it was off the strength of Ruthless People, which was an original by Launer, and a damn fine piece of comedy writing. It’s a good sign, then, that Jac Schaeffer is the writer of this version, because Schaeffer’s TiMER was a lovely, smart script, and her script for The Shower, an upcoming film with Anne Hathaway, is just wonderful. I’m a big fan, and this is good material for a writer to dig into. There’s some fun rich stuff to play with, and making Wilson’s target a young tech millionaire nerd seems like a fun variation.
If you can, track down Bedtime Story and watch it back to back with Dirty Rotten Scoundrels. It’s practically a master’s class in how to adapt another movie and how to tailor something to someone’s particular comic capabilities. And considering the material's history, I'm absolutely interested in seeing whether or not this new version can live up to what we've seen so far.