When "Big Night" came out in 1996, Stanley Tucci (who wrote and directed the film with Campbell Scott, and also starred in it) gave an interview to NPR's Terry Gross on her program "Fresh Air." Actors are trained to act with their whole bodies, Tucci told Gross, and he found it frustrating when film and television directors used close-ups that prevented us from seeing the whole actor. Two years later, I still can't decide what's most amazing about that statement: its revelation of an actor's vanity or its revelation of an actor's seeming ignorance about the technique of film acting. Nearly a century after D.W. Griffith invented the close-up as an expressive tool for actors and directors -- fighting, every step of the way, against the moneymen who told him the public paid to see the whole actor -- Tucci sounded as if he wished movies could return to what they were before Griffith: filmed theater. Doesn't Tucci realize that when a director calls for a close-up, an actor had better be ready to convey the necessary emotion with his or her face? That's acting with your body as well. Tucci is a superb actor, but his statement reeked of the musty theatrical snobbishness toward film acting that, when it still occasionally rears its head, feels as antiquated as stage-door autograph hounds.
"The Impostors," Tucci's second film as a director, is trying to be an extended joke about the vanity of actors. Taking off from a nifty farcical idea, the movie doesn't immediately reveal itself as a disaster. During the Depression, two out-of-work actors (Tucci and Oliver Platt) contrive to keep their hands in their profession by staging a series of public scenes in which innocent bystanders become their unwitting audiences (and, in some cases, their fellow actors). The opening, an amusing riff on silent comedy, has the pair of them working up to a full-scale showdown via the most mundane irritations: Tucci scolding Platt for putting too much sugar in his espresso, Platt scolding Tucci for smoking. None of their impromptu theatrical pieces turn out as planned. A scheme to get free goodies from a baker results in the baker instead presenting them with a pair of tickets for a production of "Hamlet" starring a blowhard actor (Alfred Molina) neither of them can stand. But they can't resist the chance to run down this ham, and before the evening is over, they're on the run from the cops after landing themselves in the midst of a brawl. They give the cops the slip by hiding in a packing crate, but wake up the next morning still in the crate and on board an ocean liner bound for Europe.
To give Tucci credit, there's a shrewd idea in this attempt to re-create a '30s shipboard farce. The actors who populated '30s comedies were among the most eccentric ever in American movies. Just think of the likes of Eric Blore, Edward Everett Horton, Franklin Pangborn, Margaret Dumont, Alice Brady, Eugene Pallette, Grady Sutton, William Demarest. Tucci realizes that among our current crop of actors are ones just as gifted at comic eccentricity. Tucci has put together a phenomenal cast -- in addition to himself and Platt there's Lili Taylor, Campbell Scott, Dana Ivey, Hope Davis, Steve Buscemi, Tony Shalhoub, Isabella Rossellini, Alison Janney, Richard Jenkins and Billy Connolly -- most of whom are certainly versatile enough not only to give deft performances playing stock comic types, but also to stand outside those stock roles, wittily commenting upon them. As an impoverished society matron trying to find a husband for her daughter, Ivey doesn't just offer a worthy addition to the stuffy society grande dames who've tottered through movie farces; she offers an affectionate parody of the whole type. Sometimes the joke is in the disjunction between the performer and the role he or she is playing. Young lovers were traditionally the drippiest characters in '30s comedies and musicals. But Davis, as Ivey's sad-sack daughter, and Buscemi, as the jilted band singer she falls for, are like mischievous kids drawing wild curlicues on a valentine; all they have to do is stare deeply into each other's eyes to start you giggling.
That's good, because there's nothing in the material they've been given that would do it. Some of the actors, like Rossellini as lovelorn royalty, barely have a notion of a character. Others -- like Scott as a martinet German steward, or Connolly as a he-man tennis pro with voraciously homosexual appetites -- could have done without the "notions" they're stuck with. Tucci works, as he did in "Big Night," in a low-key manner. His aim is to clear enough space for his actors to act. He substitutes the deco elegance of '30s farce for a heavier, creamier period look that's as designer-tasteful as you'd find in Woody Allen (who makes an unbilled cameo appearance).
Tucci seems to have no inkling, though, that farce can't be played as if it were an acting-class exercise. Farce is among the hardest of all genres because it requires buoyancy and an illusion of freedom (as if the actors were doing whatever came into their heads) while demanding the strictest precision in writing, directing and acting. Tucci has confused the surface frivolousness of the movies he's taking off from with the skill that went into them. There are few things more exhausting than watching people expend energy in the service of unfunny material. At times, "The Impostors" feels like nothing more than 102 minutes of actors pulling faces and running around a ship's corridors while antic period music plays on the soundtrack. Ultimately, this is a movie that treats the whole idea of farce as a moldy old tradition the director has condescended to recognize. There's some justice in the way that this farce about the vanity of actors ends up being an example of just that.