That's all that Shooting Fish needs to make it a perfect contempo-retro version of one of those peppy youth romances of the '60s and early '70s. It has a brightly colored title sequence accompanied by a goofy pop song, and the subsequent soundtrack is peppered with actual retro hits like "Do You Know the Way to San Jose?" and "What the World Needs Now." This film comes out of the same style that was burlesqued by Austin Powers: International Man of Mystery -- except that Shooting Fish is intended not as a burlesque but as a reinvention.
How urgently the world was in need of that particular reinvention is debatable, but Shooting Fish is a harmless and visually interesting bit of froth. It couldn't be much more trivial, but it's entertaining, well acted and well made. The three leads -- Beckinsale, Townsend and especially Dan Futterman as the smooth, fast-talking Yank hustler Dylan -- do relaxed, funny, attractive work, and production designer Max Gottlieb and cinematographer Stewart Meachem manage to create a warm, colorful, whimsical milieu on what was probably a modest budget.
Dylan and Jez are oddball London con men. Among their scams: Dylan, posing as a salesman, pitches a new, voice-activated computer to corporate patsies who, panicky that they're about to be left behind by technology, cough up big down payments. The inarticulate Jez uses his technical wizardry to create the illusion of the chatty computer. The gag behind the whole thing is that these two kids obviously have the talent and energy to make a fortune legitimately -- they just prefer the thrill of the scam. It's pointed out that they expend just as much time and passion and risk on some penny-ante short con as they do on the computer grift.
They tell Georgie, whom they've hired as temporary help, that they're modern-day Robin Hoods, stealing from the rich to give to orphans; what they don't tell her is that they're the charity cases in question. Both of them grew up in orphanages, dreaming of living in a "stately home." In the meantime, they've set up their own palatial digs inside an enormous suburban gasometer, which they appear to have decorated out of the Archie McPhee catalog.
The script, co-written by the young Brit director Stefan Schwartz and his American-born producer Richard Holmes -- might they be the prototypes for Jez and Doyle? -- floats all over the place. There's a terrific set piece involving insulation and the configuration of row-house attics in suburban London. There's an elaborate revenge plot against a pair of thugs who rob the lads' car. And there are twists that just seem desperate, like the one Schwartz and Holmes use to explain how a fortune in 50-pound notes will become worthless.
Devices like this, or like an aristocrat in danger of losing her mansion (one wing of which serves as a home for kids with Down syndrome!) to a blue-blood cad who wants to marry her are so antique they can't even be called retro. "Plautine" might be a better word. But this may actually work to the film's benefit -- they're so old that they may be new to younger audiences.
Besides, the actors give the movie a youthful zing that lets us ignore the staleness of the dramaturgy. Few could have guessed, from his performance in the drab role of Robin Williams's son in The Birdcage, that Futterman had this sort of jazzy panache. Townsend, a round-faced Irish actor, is less interesting but still shows a quiet charm. The radiant Beckinsale -- Hero in Kenneth Branagh's Much Ado About Nothing and Flora in Cold Comfort Farm -- plays Georgie with unflappable aplomb and good humor.
Georgie serves, basically, three functions in the script: First, she observes and is charmed by the antics of Dylan and Jez. Second, she makes it clear to the audience that Dylan and Jez's relationship with each other is strictly platonic. And third, she gives Dylan and Jez someone to come to the rescue of in the final quarter of the picture. In short, she is to Dylan and Jez roughly what Dorothy Lamour was to Bob and Bing.
Directed by Stefan Schwartz. With Kate Beckinsale, Dan Futterman, Stuart Townsend, Nickolas Grace, Claire Cox, Ralph Ineson, Peter Capaldi and Phyllis Logan.