The Buddy System

Chugging cheerfully along somewhere between Mel Brooks and early Woody Allen, The Impostors is a very funny old-school comedy. It's tempting to peg the film, which Stanley Tucci wrote, directed, and stars in, as a Dumb and Dumber for the Big Night set, but the better analogy is Big Night with gags standing in for gastronomy, and a little Abbott and Costello thrown in. Impostors's poster boys for misadventure--Arthur (Tucci) and Maurice (Oliver Platt)--aren't all that stupid actually, just a little too earnestly self-absorbed. Penniless turn-of-the-century actors who stage elaborately inane bits of street theater, the boys long for success as serious drama types without realizing they're actually walking vaudeville gags. One of their flailing, staged street fights scores them tickets to a performance of Hamlet, starring a belligerent alcoholic (a blustery Alfred Molina). They quickly run afoul of him, and gosh darn it if the crate they take refuge in isn't immediately loaded onto a Paris-bound cruise ship.

Everyone onboard is some kind of accented loon and the parade of outsized supporting turns (which begins with Woody Allen essentially playing Woody Allen) soon becomes a stampede. There's Campbell Scott as a crop-wielding German purser, Isabella Rossellini as a wailing, recently deposed Baltic queen, Lili Taylor as an earnest all-
American girl. Murderous con men and anarchist terrorists soon find themselves in the stew, each banging a particular drum with increasing urgency until the time comes for Arthur and Maurice ''to act,'' which is to say set things right and save the day. The Impostors is so thoroughly whipped it could have gone completely airborne, but Tucci's precisely timed writing and direction and the effortless professionalism of his players not only keep the film grounded but lend the screwball antics a warm sumptuousness. Arthur may continually insist that good actors play their characters small, but Impostors's true insight is that there are lots of ways to exercise creative control, and that there are times when a banana peel is as good a foil as poor Yorick's skull.

Yanking on heartstrings instead of tickling ribs, The Mighty is an entirely different flavor of carefully constructed trifle. Max (Elden Henson) and Kevin (Kieran Culkin) are two loser-ish seventh graders who find a common solution to entirely different problems. Hobbled by a degenerative bone disease, Kevin fights his way through the world on brainpower while the hugely oversized Max hides behind his girth. The two come together during a tutoring session, bookish Kevin bringing along his trusty, grail-like copy of Arthurian legends; the tales of Camelot soon become a more literal learning aid, Max lifting his little tutor on his shoulders, a knight on giant steed. They dub themselves Sir Freak the Mighty and take to the mildly mean streets of Cincinnati, returning purses and standing up for cheaply made-up damsels until their ultimate dragon appears in the form of Max's slickly evil ex-con father.

Cheek by jowl: Tucci and Platt in The Imposters
Bill Foley
Cheek by jowl: Tucci and Platt in The Imposters

Details

The Impostors
Written and directed by Stanley Tucci
A Fox Searchlight release

The Mighty
Directed by Peter Chelsom
Written by Charles Leavitt, from Rodman Philbrick's novel Freak the Mighty
A Miramax release
Opens October 9

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Framed by mildly fantastical flourishes (the Knights of the Round Table make appearances) and surrounded by a well-chosen cast of adults (despite her high billing, Sharon Stone does mostly yeoman's work as Kevin's decent but overburdened mother), the two boys are allowed to grow believably in affection and stature. The Mightyis completely in thrall to certain kid-book convictions, so from the very beginning it's clear that the same generic forces that dictate Kevin's declining health will insure that Max finds the strength to transcend his own limitations. Credit everyone involved, though, that when the inevitable happens it still has a ring of truth over the swelling violins.

 
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