01 May 2007

"IN THE TRADITION OF MOLIÈRE," MY ASS

"[T]he modern French cinema consists of two kinds of movies, " I suggested in my review of The Page Turner, "awful romantic comedies and fantastic thrillers," and The Valet is a sterling example of the wrong kind.

"Awful" is harsh. But it's not very good, and compared to the only other film I've seen by writer/director Francis Veber, The Dinner Game, it's not at all imaginative. Mostly, though The Valet (a needless mistranslation of the French La doublure, "The Stand-in") suffers from a thoroughgoing miscarriage of tone.

Nowhere better to begin than the beginning: the credits. These are animated, and involve many cars (because the film is about a valet! You got that?) carrying cartoon representations of crew members so e.g. the "Cinematographer" and "Camera Operator" cards are on the side of a car carrying a man with a movie camera, the "Costume Designer" card is on a car with a coat rack in the back seat. It's bright and colorful throughout. And to start, it's kind of cute and silly, more than a little reminiscent of Freling and DePatie's work on The Pink Panther. Then it gets less cute and silly, and becomes kind of annoying. Indeed, it becomes rather shrill, which is quite an achievement for a sequence running less than three minutes.

I don't know, maybe this primed me to expect the rest of the movie to be equally shrill, but that's how I found it. I should stop using "shrill," "labored" is probably a much better word. In the film's first proper scene, we see François Pignon (Gad Elmaleh) and Richard (Dany Boon) pull up next to each other in bright shiny cars, bragging about their new toys. In short order, we learn that they are both valets, bringing those cars out of the lot. Ho ho! To be fair, that's a fine joke, well-constructed and impeccably timed. But I can't help but feel that it's broad and sitcom-ey anyway.

Enough with my feelings, though: the next scene is objectively broad and sitcom-ey, as François visits his parents: a flustered and comically overwrought mother, and a sick father who is busy tending to his even sicker doctor. It's very noisy, and very zany - and if there's one thing I can't stand, it's zaniness. As the doctor descends the stairs, blathering about his sickness - but being zany about it! - the anti-funny is deadening. It was at this precise moment that I first hit upon the word "shrill."

It's not all terrible. The plot involves Pierre, a sneaky businessman (Daniel Auteuil) with a supermodel mistress (Alice Taglioni) and a suspicious wife (Kristin Scott Thomas) with her hands on majority of the company's stock. When Pierre and Elena, his ladyfriend, are photographed together, he tries to convince wife Christine that he was just passing through, and that other guy must be Elena's boyfriend. Surprise, that other guy is François, who is quickly hired to pose as Elena's lover until Christine backs down, putting a serious crimp in his pursuit of his childhood sweetheart Émelie (Virginie Ledoyen). Rote farce, all of it, but so were Some Like It Hot and Top Hat, and they both turned out well.

Sometimes, particularly in the scenes focusing on Auteuil and Scott Thomas (handily the two best actors here) this works very well, and is all of the three things that a comedy must be: smart, funny and merciless. Far more often, it is not any of those things, going instead for the trifecta of simple, goofy and toothless that turns the bulk of the affair, particularly those sequences between François and Émelie, into a Gallic-tinged episode of According to Jim. I do not know anything about French television, and I do not know if they have sitcoms over there. But from the simple "beat, gag, gag, beat, gag, gag, heartwarming, beat, gag" rhythm of The Valet, they have access to our sitcoms, or else this is a stunning case of convergent evolution.

Is there anything wrong with sitcom-style humor? Well...yes, there is. It's generally very obvious and predictable. I've spent too many years railing against a world where Two and a Half Men thrives and Arrested Development dies to go back on that now. In the case of The Valet, there's nothing exactly unfunny - I admit that I laughed - but it has no edge. Not for one moment did a gag go anywhere that I didn't see coming for five minutes. Maybe I ask too much when I demand that every comedy have a streak of danger running through it, but without exception, the funniest movies are those which take the audience as far away from comfort as they can get away with. Nice is not funny, especially in a farce like this one, where anarchy is supposed to reign supreme. If you can tell what's coming and when, the farce dies: it becomes rigid and formulaic, which is nowhere more of a detriment than in comedy.

The Valet is therefore boring; and it is broad and loud; but it's not "bad." It's just that Veber had very small ambitions with this project. I gather that he just wanted to make something nice and distracting for 85 minutes. It succeeded at those things, I suppose. It's just very, very sleepy and low-key, and ultimately it adds nothing to my understanding of the human condition. This is a background music movie: it serves no need other than filling time.

A wise comedian once opined, "if it bends, it's funny." Unfortunately, here we have a case of bending just a little too much, and instead of a laugh, it leaves us with a grin and a yawn.

5/10

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