In March 1978, one of the most famous cases of “body-snatching” took place in Lausanne, Switzerland, when two men decided to dig up the body of silent movie icon, Charlie Chaplin, requesting a ransom of $600,000 for his safe return. It is this moment in history that inspires Paul Tanter’s Stealing Chaplin, a dark comedy set in amongst the bright lights and arid deserts of Las Vegas.
Written by and starring Doug and Simon Phillips, the film centres around two hapless Brits (as they are constantly referred to), who have blown the $30,000 that they owe to a loan shark. Threatened with torture, death and everything in between, the pair try to come up with a plan to pay off their debt. Behind on their rent and out of work, the fraternal duo are running low on options – and time. One drunken night in sees them hatch a plan – they’re going to steal the body of Charlie Chaplin (who is buried in Vegas, for the purposes of this movie) and hold his body to ransom in order to pay off their debt and get scheming loan shark Evans (Brent Barrett) off their backs.
The film opens with a quote from Chaplin – “Whoever lives, gambles with life.” – and the title sequence is a neat little montage of the Hollywood icon at his clowning best. The film uses title cards with Chaplin quotes throughout, letting you know what you’re in for in the moments to come. It’s a neat little device, tying the plot back to the type of madcap plan you would expect from one of the screwball silents.
Stealing Chaplin quickly establishes Cal and Terry (Doug and Simon Phillips, respectively) as a pair of idiots, seemingly incapable of tying their own shoelaces, never mind pulling off such a daring plan. They begin the film dressed as chaplains – get it?! – who have set up some sort of fundraiser for people with leprosy; another of their ‘rob Peter to pay Paul’ schemes. A lot of their initial banter seems ad-libbed as it does meander a bit. In places, it’s funny – “How short is he?” / “About 5 foot 2.” – but in others, it lags on a bit without ever making your lips crease into a smile.
However, once the movie finds its rhythm, the humour does come thick and fast. Sometimes, it’s slapstick – an homage to Chaplin himself – and other times, it’s just brotherly banter. The humour and, in particular, Simon Phillips’ delivery, is where the strength of the film lies. There are some really funny one liners throughout (“It doesn’t serve Red Bull as a mixer,” being a favourite) and often, at times when you least expect them.
So, it would have made sense for the Phillips brothers to lean heavily on the comedy side of dark comedy, since they both seem to have a knack for it. The scenes with the interchangeable gangsters in long coats really drag the movie down. The acting isn’t convincingly so, unfortunately, these men aren’t scary. One of them even has his glasses on a string. Another just keeps saying “Pilgrim” and there are two bald men who look so alike it won’t even matter who is who.
The sub-plot with the policewoman and her sister, the stripper, also grinds things to a halt. There are also some minor plot niggles – wouldn’t the grave of a Hollywood icon be (a) more than just an A5 plaque in the ground and (b) guarded in some way? – but you do make allowances for this in order for the comedy to flourish. If this film was just a straight screwball comedy, played for laughs, it would have worked better and the 1 hour 45 minute run time wouldn’t have felt much longer at times.
The soundtrack is also a massive distraction. Barely a scene goes by where there isn’t jazzy, Vegas-style elevator music overwhelming the action. At times, it really cuts over the dialogue, which is annoying. It did seem like it was an attempt to emulate the tinkling piano music that often accompanied silent movies but here – because there is dialogue – it just doesn’t work.
And, whilst humour is definitely Stealing Chaplin’s saving grace, it doesn’t quite gel with the flashy, trashy Vegas setting and the attempt at a Soprano’s style gangster squad. Doug Phillips’ performance stands out as being the most natural and the most entertaining – he’s a character you’ll want to shake by the shoulders and also feel a little sympathy for. As the film works towards its final act, it really starts to come apart at the seams, but Phillips’ performance is consistent – almost as if he is willing it towards the finish line.
Although it takes too long in its execution and you’ll have seen scarier gangsters on kids TV, Stealing Chaplin does really excel with its physical and verbal comedy. Look out for a cameo from legendary Vegas entertainer, Wayne Newton, too. He’s the one with the blinding veneers and lashings of Just for Men. Yeesh.
The North American TVOD/Digital Platform and DVD Release of Stealing Chaplin is on May 4, 2021