At one point in Stealing Chaplin, a sozzled huckster tries to pry open a Union Jack-draped coffin as Land of Hope and Glory rings out on the soundtrack. Maybe this somewhat amateurish but spunky low-budget crime film has hit on something: in the post-Brexit era, Brits are no longer stock movie villains; conmen and chancers are our natural fits now. The hustle here is in splendidly questionable taste: the casket is Charlie Chaplin’s, whom brother grifters Cal (Simon Phillips) and Terry (Doug Phillips) have disinterred in order to ransom his body so they can pay off the $30,000 they owe to Las Vegas gangsters.
You’d be forgiven for being suspicious, but this is actually based on a true story – though the theft occurred in 1978 in Switzerland, where Chaplin is buried in real life. Director Paul Tanter juices it up into an Ocean’s 11-style caper complete with rinky-dink music playing over diner scenes as the brothers scheme and squabble. Police captain Goddard (Liliana Vargas) slowly cottons on to the fact that the shysters running a National Leprosy Day scam are also graverobbers, while a perplexing cabal of mobsters, bent cops and – why not? – the brothers’ landlady try to lay hands on the cadaver-cum-cash distributor for themselves. Best not poke around in this all-day-buffet of a plot too much.
Stealing Chaplin’s acting and camerawork are also uneven, and the smooth-talking young brother chaperoning his lost-cause older sibling feels like a cliche. But the two Phillipses (no relation) spar so enjoyably – meting out their grievances in daft minutiae such as Terry’s insistence that tomatoes were once widely considered poisonous – that lingering in their company (and some scenes do linger) is an Elmore Leonard-esque pleasure. The gap-toothed Doug Phillips, who wrote the script, is the more eye-catching performer, with a kind of off-kilter forlornness. Despite the rough edges, Stealing Chaplin has an unflagging, garrulous confidence that whisks you along.