‘The Gentlemen’ review: unique, but not special

January 31, 2020

A unique storytelling gimmick is a tricky thing for a film to rely on, as it can either enhance the impact and appeal of a narrative, or it can distract and drain it. While not advertised around it, Guy Richie’s “The Gentlemen” is a movie entirely entranced and engorged on its own gimmick. The narrative is laid out as a film script itself, dictated by an exuberant and conniving reporter named Fletcher (Hugh Grant) to the gruff and stoic Raymond (Charlie Hunnam) as a way of extorting Raymond’s boss, marijuana kingpin Mickey Pearson (Matthew McConaughey). The story Fletcher recounts over the course of the film covers the attempts of Pearson to sell his illegal business and retire and the attempts of the young upstart gangster Dry Eye (Henry Golding) to interfere. 

To have the majority of the plot told retrospectively in the form of a movie pitch based on a reporter’s second-hand account of events opens a rich well of investment opportunities, which “The Gentlemen” tries, and then fails, to capitalize on. From the first scene, we are left wondering what chain of events led Fletcher to come to Raymond with this story, what bombshell of information Fletcher plans to blackmail Pearson with and how Pearson and Raymond react to his attempts. In addition, the trope of having an in-universe character as the conscious narrator of the story is a gold mine of comedic opportunities, where storytellers can openly comment their opinions on events and people within their own narrative and even tell certain scenes in whatever exaggerated and fantastical way they desire, forcing us to replay the scene again as it actually happened. This trope of storytelling is not only capable of generating laugh-a-minute comedy but instantly makes the movie stand out and feel memorable. But there is a difference between feeling memorable and being memorable, and that difference comes when a film is more obsessed with its storytelling gimmick than the story it’s actually telling.

The type of retrospective in-universe narration employed by “The Gentlemen” is a perfect tool for characterization, as the way in which the storyteller comments and tweaks the tale gives us an intimate insight into who the storyteller is and how he or she views the world. Fletcher’s storytelling has this effect, and his personality and quirks are placed at the center of this movie. Unfortunately, Fletcher isn’t the main character of the story he is describing, and he lacks any real personal connection with the people he is talking about. As such, much of the movie plays out like how a reporter would see it, a series of highlighted events in a grand scheme with a large cast of characters whose biographies we all know. 

In essence, the plot of the film is a detailed dictation of the film’s own plot. Here is an example: We are told, by Fletcher, that Pearson was born dirt poor in an American trailer park, earned an Oxford scholarship, became rich selling weed to the children of dukes and maintains his business by paying off noble families with dwindling fortunes so he can use their estates as farms. At one point in the movie, a scandal forces him to cut ties with one of these nobles, who complains to Pearson about how he’s going to pay to fix the room of his manor. 

Based on his backstory, I was split as to whether Pearson was going to have this man killed to tie up loose ends because he would see English nobility as greedy pretentious tools, or if he was going to actually fix this man’s roof because he has a code of morals and respect for this high society he has won his way into. Instead, neither happens, and this poor rich man and his roof are never brought up again. It’s an endemic problem in a movie with many characters who we only know through their trading card bios. Pearson’s wife is the Cleopatra to his Ceasar, Dry Eye is an insolent young upstart, Raymond is a loyal right-hand man, Pearson is a lion, a king, a ruthless, brutal, calm, calculating, classy criminal. Great, but what does any of this mean? 

The film puts more effort into telling us how cool and interesting and intimidating its ensemble is than proving it. Traits like these could be expanded upon in scenes, and each of these characters gets to shine in a scene or two, in a vignette, a conversation, none of which are bad on their own. But it has the same effect of watching the best scene from every episode of “Breaking Bad” in isolation. You like the scene, the acting’s great and together you can understand the story, but without flow and without scenes that don’t only serve to explain things or slavishly further the overall plot, they feel hollow. In the end, the only character you have any connection with or care for is the narrator himself, Fletcher, who is of no importance to the story he is telling and of minimal importance to the outside narrative. We don’t even learn if Fletcher is his first or last name. 

Of course, character and narrative aren’t everything. Actually, it is, but fools will say it isn’t, so let’s humor them. “The Gentlemen” is an action-comedy, so how is the action, and how is the comedy? Well, the action is basically nonexistent, and the humor is hit or miss. The movie veers into serious moods that fall flat given how little connection the audience has to anyone and anything on the screen. Good action-comedies like “The Nice Guys” and “Hot Fuzz” weave violence and crime into their narratives in humorous ways, either being overly ridiculous or awkward, or serious, then funny due to the fully realized characters on screen. None of that is present here. It feels more clumsy than anything else. “The Gentlemen” trips over its own uniqueness and fails to be anything more effective or evocative or even memorable than a plot summary.

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