Stealing Chaplin is about a couple of clueless, low-life criminals who concoct a plan to steal the body of silent film star Charlie Chaplin in order to demand ransom money for its return.
Sound preposterous? It is. Except for the fact that it actually happened back in 1978 a few short months after Charlie Chaplin died on Christmas Day, 1977 at his home in Switzerland.
The shocking story made the headlines, worldwide. I’m old enough to remember it.
The documentary film Stealing Charlie Chaplin (2017) spells out all the details.
But now comes the fictionalized comedy version of the story written by brothers Doug and Simon Phillips who also star in the film “inspired by true events.”
They play Cat and Terry, a couple of bungling Brit brothers living in Las Vegas, who might qualify as the world’s worst criminals.
In short, they have gambled and lost $30,000 that they borrowed from the mob. A sure-fire internet scam intended to raise the money turns out to be a disaster.
But after watching a Chaplin film, one of the brothers hatches what seems to be a foolproof plan involving the late Charlie Chaplin, grave robbing and a ransom scheme guaranteed to bail them out.
In the film, Chaplin is inexplicably buried in a cemetery in Las Vegas not far from the brothers live. All they need is a borrowed van and two shovels.
Of course, things are never as simple as they seem.
There are pesky little details about where to hide the body and who exactly they need to contact in order to get the ransom money they are demanding. As mentioned, the brothers are woefully low on combined brain power.
But that’s where the comedy comes in. The brothers’ ineptitude and stupidity is what makes this film funny.
While you want to resist the temptation of saying that they proceed to dig themselves in deeper and deeper as the story unfolds, that’s pretty much what happens.
In addition to the comedy crime drama element, there is also a romantic comedy element that develops when one of the brothers falls for the cute blonde waitress at the 1950s-themed diner (straight out of Pulp Fiction) who is a fraction of his age.
Their unlikely, screwball attraction somehow doesn’t seem any stranger than anything else within the context of this bizarre story. But things do proceed to get complicated.
There are a lot of complicated details in Stealing Chaplin, such as the female cop assigned to solving their case whose sister is working in the local strip club. Awkward.
There is the snitch cop funneling information to the mob and, of course, there are the local mobsters who hang out at the Sopranos-style strip joint with all the topless dancers, when they’re not strangling people, torturing people with blow torches or stuffing heads in bags. Or burying bodies in the desert on the outskirts of Las Vegas as we’ve seen done so many times in so many gangster flicks.
There is a lot going on, and director Paul Tanter keeps things moving along at a brisk pace with bouncy, British-style humor, making the best of his limited, Indie Film budget.
Stealing Chaplin cuts corners whenever possible starting with the change of locale from Switzerland to Las Vegas, eliminating travel expenses and foreign film crews.
There are scenes where a crowd of Chaplin fans holding a vigil at the empty gravesite amounts to a dozen or so extras and about 20 candles, but we get the point and are willing to let the filmmakers slide.
You could argue that modestly staged scenes like this make the movie even funnier.
Chaplin fans will like the archival movie clips of The Tramp as well as the numerous Chaplin quotes that appear throughout the film in the form of silent-film-style insert titles.
It’s clear that the film isn’t trying to be disrespectful, just having fun with a bizarre, postmortem chapter of Chaplin’s remarkable life.
The center of the plot revolves around the two brothers and their non-stop banter. At the heart of that is the chemistry between the two brothers. who really connect both as comedy writers and performers.
The casting of the comedy team brothers who wrote the script as the leads is the heart and soul of Stealing Chaplin.
The supporting cast adds color to the story with the possible exception of the senior mob boss who never seems to rise above the performance level of line reading and rehearsal.
But all that is compensated by the cameo of the long-reigning king of Las Vegas, Wayne Newton, appearing as himself.
He’s a testament to the power of plastic surgery in the quest to stay eternally young, though you wonder if his cell phone’s facial recognition struggles to identify him these days. That said, his presence in a brief bar scene and his short explanation of the strange term “fish love” are on the short list of reasons to catch this movie.
Stealing Chaplin isn’t a perfect film, far from it. But it’s a funny film if you’re in the mood for some Indie comedy laughs.
It keeps you in stitches and suspense until the very end. culminating in a completely improbable, but genuinely funny Mexican standoff.
In case you’re wondering, the actual theft of Chaplin’s body mentioned earlier, ended with the ransom not being paid, the two grave robbers being apprehended by the police, and the body being returned to Chaplin’s family who re-buried it in a more secure resting place.
It’s a different kind of ending than the humorous one in the movie, but a happy ending nevertheless.
Stealing Chaplin will be available on all TVOD/Digital platforms and on DVD across North America beginning on May 4, 2021.
Movie Chat: Stealing Chaplin Director and Cast