In director Paul Tanter’s Stealing Chaplin, brothers Cal (Simon Phillips) and Terry (Doug Phillips) are English grifters in need of $30,000 to pay off Terry’s gambling debts. As soon as Keaton (Chad Peters), the loan shark, threatens the boys’ health, he is killed by the much more menacing mob boss Hynkel (Peter Woodward). As the stakes rise, the boys decide to dig up Charlie Chaplin’s body and hold it for ransom. Think this is a silly plot twist? True events inspired the story.
The comedy has a lot of working parts. The brothers bicker a lot but, deep down, love each other. Terry is the idiot of the pair, and the straight-laced Cal is duty-bound to clean up Terry’s messes. And don’t forget all the subplots: Cal begins flirting with Helen (Bianca Katz), a server at their favorite diner. Federal agent Goddard (Liliana Vargas) is hunting the brothers over a “Leprosy Awareness Day” scam. Goddard is the sister of a stripper Hynkel uses to lure Keaton to his death. The boys also owe back rent to their landlord, Stapleton (Cheryl Prater), who needs her money.
If you’re a fan of British comedy, Stealing Chaplin might work for you. The humor is incredibly dry…Sahara dry. Terry is not so quick on the uptake. He doesn’t understand how silent films work, and Cal has to explain it to him. These conversations are pretty much the extent of the comedy. Something happens, or a strange idea presents itself, and comedic repartee is drawn out of it. For example, Terry talks to his Cannabis plant to help it grow, and it morphs into plant love and ends on discussions of having sex with the plant. I’ve sat in on these conversations just hanging out with comedians for a drink. There’s an appeal to this kind of humor. But it’s just not my cup of tea.
“…the boys decide to dig up Charlie Chaplin’s body and hold it for ransom.”
Story-wise, Doug Phillips and Simon Phillips, who wrote as well as starred in the movie, weave all the loose storylines together into an amusing climax involving Chaplin’s coffin. To their credit, the mob stuff is joyously brutal with several mob-style killings and dismemberment here and there. The intimidation efforts are effective. These merciless elements amazingly work with the silly comedy. I think because if you have the temperament to kill someone, you’re not going to put up with a great deal of silliness, and the boys receive a good punch in the face for their trouble.
I’ll be upfront. Stealing Chaplin gets a tepid review from me. I want to laugh out loud with my comedies, and that just didn’t happen. The humor is very cerebral, pointing out quirks in everyday life and the human condition, but never comes through with that big punchline. The Phillips brothers are charming, but I never got to know them well enough to feel the needed sympathy for their plight. Sure, they’re in danger, but that’s not enough. Endear me somehow with them as human beings. The love story between Cal and Helen was cute and probably my favorite part.
Another positive is the fact the story takes place in Las Vegas. It appears that a lot of independent filmmakers are heading to Sin City for the tax benefits and the abundance of local talent in front of and behind the camera. The film definitely has the “off-strip” feel that I like much more than the glitz and bright lights generally associated with the gambling town.
Stealing Chaplin is good, not great. In the end, I just wanted to like the movie more than I actually did. If you’re a fan of British dry humor, I think you’ll have fun.
"…the humor is incredibly dry…Sahara dry."