It was recently announced that Rebel Wilson would be top-lining a gender-switched remake (which are all the rage ever since the new Ghostbusters scored box office receipts analysts raved were “insufficient to make a sequel financially feasible”) of Dirty Rotten Scoundrels. When remakes to movies we enjoyed as children are announced, they are invariably greeted with sorrowful wails and angry accusation that the mere existence of such monstrosities sexually defiles the childhoods of entire generations.
But a remake of Dirty Rotten Scoundrels actually makes sense. Obviously, much of the film’s enduring appeal comes from the yin and yang chemistry of Steve Martin and Michael Caine with Frank Oz’s nastily assured direction, but the film became a solid hit and popular favorite because its premise is fairly ingenious as well.
Besides, Dirty Rotten Scoundrels was itself a remake of the 1964 comedy Bedtime Story. Some fans of Dirty Rotten Scoundrels probably don’t even realize the film is a remake despite the film starring one of the more auspicious duos in film history: the unlikely but inspired comedy team of Marlon Brando and David Niven, in the roles later played by Martin and Caine respectively (who themselves starred after a proposed version that would have starred David Bowie and Mick Jagger fell through).
Considering Brando’s outsized cult and Dirty Rotten Scoundrels’ success it seems strange that Bedtime Story isn’t better known. It’s not on Netflix or iTunes, DVD or Blu-Ray so I had to watch it on YouTube in a version with greek subtitles. Profile-wise, it probably doesn’t help that Bedtime Story falls smack dab in the wilderness years for Brando. He was no longer as volcanic in his smoldering, androgynous beauty as he was during his early years onscreen. He’d filled out so that he looked like a middle-aged man but he also hadn’t embraced the raging eccentricity, and morbid obesity, that would characterize his post-The Godfather years.
The film hit theaters at an unfortunate time in other ways. The randy comedy of deceit does a terrible job of pretending that it’s not fundamentally about S-E-X but its randiness is of the winking and nudging variety, not the more open and honest sexuality that would characterize European and American film in just a few more years.
Bedtime Story is naughty and ingratiatingly mean but in a way that probably seemed old-fashioned even at the time. In a rare broad comic lead, Brando stars as Corporal Freddy Benson, an Army man in Germany who makes a robust second income tricking beautiful women with slick tall tales about his beloved grandma.
Brando plays his professional seducer as a wolf who has happily taken up permanent residence in a henhouse. Brando was always a very physical and a very sexual performer, but he uses his physicality and sexuality differently here. Whether he’s rampaging about as a maniacal id of a mentally stunted monkey-man or buried up to his head in sand, Brando shows a surprising facility for broad physical comedy here.
And the brute sensuality that makes A Streetcar Named Desire so uncomfortably sexual has aged and mellowed into the assured arrogance of a man who knows exactly what to say to women to get them to do his bidding. Niven stars as Lawrence Jameson, a continental man of taste and means who similarly makes a living lying to women but otherwise is Freddy’s opposite.
Lawrence poses as the overwhelmed Prince of a struggling country, a ruse irresistible to love-struck American women of a certain age and wealth bracket. Lawrence looks and acts the part, every inch the respectable British gentleman. Freddy, in contrast, is a boorish American savage, a cocky con man convinced he can talk his way out of any jam because history has illustrated that to be true.
At first Lawrence is content to merely observe his vulgar professional colleague from a safe distance, watching how he operates from a place of professional curiosity more than anything else. But eventually the two men embark on a strange competition/collaboration involving a lovestruck American played by Shirley Jones, who won an Oscar for Elmer Gantry but is better known as the mom from The Partridge Family.
It’s said that you can’t trick an honest man and that con artists thrive on, and exploit, the moral weaknesses of their victims, their greed or lust or naiveté or their cruelty. The same might be true of movies about con artists. They appeal to the bully in each of us, the inner schadenfreude artist that enjoys both seeing rubes get fleeced and then con artists get their inevitable comeuppance.
Bedtime Story is appropriately mean. Much of the comedy comes from the way Lawrence cannily manipulates the elaborate cons he’s orchestrating so that his less cagey and cerebral American patriot is the subject of as much physical abuse and discomfort as possible. He’s a gleeful sadist who executes his nasty schemes with a dry smile and a misleading hint of chivalry.
The film is so refreshingly unabashed in its nastiness that when it’s revealed that Lawrence is a bit of a Robin Hood figure, a thief with honor who fleeces wealthy women for the sake of supporting a small colony of artists and partisans who otherwise would go starving without his patronage, it almost feels like a violation of the film’s ruthless tone, if not an outright betrayal.
As in Dirty Rotten Scoundrels, the biggest laughs come from a set piece where Lawrence, now working both with, and also against Freddy, has him hammily portray “Ruprecht,” a demented, almost feral mentally challenged man-boy who is a danger to himself primarily, but also to everyone else. The character and performance is as funny as it is problematic. So is Lawrence literally handicapping the competition by scheming to have his American rival spend huge amounts of time in a wheelchair.
Bedtime Story is tasteless and mean in its depiction of disabilities both mental and physical but then so are so many comedies. If Bedtime Story is shameless and vulgar in its pursuit of laughs, at least it’s successful in scoring a steady stream of misanthropic chuckles. Niven makes for a perfect, bone-dry straight man and Brando is enormous fun as a schemer who is never remotely as smart as he thinks he is.
I went into Bedtime Story with low expectations and was pleasantly surprised. It’s no lost masterpiece but it is funny and showcases a side of Brando we didn’t get to see often: slapstick funnyman. It will certainly be a challenge for Wilson and her costar to fill in the footsteps of performers as distinctive and talented as Marlon Brando, David Niven, Steve Martin, and Michael Caine, but with the right script and the right director, this trusty old warhorse could prove a winner a third time.
Nathan Rabin is the former head writer of The A.V. Club and the author of four books, including Weird Al: The Book (with “Weird Al” Yankovic) and, most recently, You Don’t Know Me But You Don’t Like Me.