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Valet, The
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by Peter Sobczynski

"Everything You Could Want In A Comedy, Except Laughs"
3 stars

On the surface, “The Valet” would seem to have all the ingredients for a nifty night at the movies. It contains a smoothly written and intricately constructed screenplay that contains not a single moment of discernible narrative flab. Director Francis Veber keeps things going at a speedy pace without ever letting the farcical story spiral too far out of control for its own good. The roles have been filled with impeccably cast actors who all seem perfectly at home with the material. Hell, it even looks good–it has the slick and highly polished visual style that quietly invokes the feel of a 1950's Frank Tashlin comedy. The only fly in the ointment is the fact that it simply isn’t very funny and since it is a comedy, after all, it is a flaw that sadly renders all of the other virtues moot.

Daniel Auteuil, the man who has pretty much replaced Gerard Depardieu as France’s leading male actor, stars as Pierre Levasseur, a rich and powerful businessman with all the trappings of a man in his position–control of a multi-national corporation, a rich and beautiful wife in Christine (Kristin Scott Thomas) and a gorgeous supermodel mistress in Elena (Alice Taglioni). Unfortunately for Pierre, his entire lifestyle is threatened when a public argument with Elena–she wants him to divorce Christine and yadda yadda–is photographed by a paparazzo and splashed all over the front page. Desperate to avoid a financially ruinous divorce, Pierre notices that there is another man captured in the photo–humble and homely valet Francois Pignon (Gad Elmaleh)–and tries to convince Christine that Elena was with that guy all along and that he just happened to wander into the picture. Obviously, Christine is somewhat doubtful of this claim–why would a woman as beautiful and famous as Elena be dating a schlub like Francois–so Pierre contacts Francois and convinces him to have Elena move into his cramped apartment for a month to create the illusion that they are a couple in the eyes of the press and the detectives that his wife has hired.

Astonishingly, both Elena and Francois agree to this arrangement for purely pragmatic reasons. Elena is willing to go along with it as long as Pierre deposits 20 million francs in her bank account that will be returned to him in full the minute that he officially leaves Christine for her, a moment that she quite rightly suspects will never occur. For Francois, it is a little more complicated. Just before wandering into the photo, he proposed marriage to childhood sweetheart Emilie (Virginie Ledoyen) and was turned down–she has just opened a bookstore and is too consumed with paying off the 32,000 francs that she borrowed for the business to even think about marriage–and he agrees to do it to earn the money to erase her debt so that she will marry him. (This also neatly eradicates any potential sexual tension that might arise from sharing a small apartment with a universal object of lust.) Francois and Elena pretend to be a couple but complications naturally arise–Emilie is upset at the apparent ease with which Francois seems to have gotten over her and soon finds herself seeing a boorish cell-phone dealer in order to make him jealous, Pierre is increasingly driven to anger and frustration when the act he has arranged begins to look a little too convincing and Christine, who has correctly surmised that the entire thing is a scam, begins to throw in a couple of monkey wrenches of her own just for the fun of seeing her husband squirm even further.

“The Valet” is the kind of classically styled farce that one rarely sees today in modern comedies, which tend to focus more on cramming as many jokes into the proceedings as humanly possible without bothering to first build a credible framework for them. By now, Francis Veber is an expert at the form (his previous efforts have included such international hits as “The Dinner Game,” “The Closet” and the screenplay for “La Cage Aux Folles”) and he keeps the proceedings humming along with the speed and precision of a well-oiled machine–there is hardly a wasted moment in its brisk 85-minute running time. The screenplay is cleverly constructed in that there are no superfluous subplots and the more potentially odious elements of the screenplay–chiefly Elena’s willingness to agree to live with a complete stranger after striking a large cash deal with her lover–are dealt with in a clean and efficient manner. The casting is pretty smart as well–Auteuil (best known in America for his work in such serious films as “Jean De Florette” and “Cache” is a perfect choice as the increasingly frazzled business tycoon, Elmaleh is goofy and charming as Pignon, Kristin Scott Thomas (acting in French with surprising ease) brings a merrily malicious twinkle to her scenes as her character patiently allows her philandering husband to dig himself into an increasingly deep hole right before her eyes and both Taglioni and Ledoyen are sweet and charming and beautiful as the two women in Pignon’s life. (If there is a flaw in the casting, it is that the role of the ordinarily attractive Emilie has been filled by Virginie Ledoyen, a woman so drop-dead gorgeous that she pretty much obliterates all thoughts of the more overtly glamorous supermodel whenever she walks on the screen.) It even ends on a surprisingly restrained note for a farce–instead of the door-slamming lunacy one might expect, it instead climaxes with a quiet conversation in the back of a car between the loathsome tycoon and the now-emboldened Everyman.

All of these aforementioned elements work but as I mentioned before, they are undone by the simple fact that the movie itself isn’t very funny. Lord knows it tries to be funny and I can even intellectually appreciate how Veber is trying to amuse us but understanding why something is supposed to be funny and actually laughing are two entirely different things. Take the scene in which Francois and Emilie both find themselves sitting in the same café and trying to make each other jealous by engaging in increasingly flirtatious behavior with their new “lovers.” It is a sequence that is impeccably crafted, perfectly timed and nicely performed by everyone and yet it just doesn’t quite come off because it lacks the final burst of inspiration that would transform it from an intellectually funny conceit into a genuinely funny scene. Essentially, the problem is that Veber has been making this kind of film for so long now that there is the inescapable sense that he is working on auto-pilot. It sounds silly to be giving advice to the man who is arguably France’s leading comedic filmmaker but it might not be a bad idea for him to try working on a film written by someone other than himself–the change-of-pace might wind up serving him well in the long run.

I didn’t hate “The Valet” by any means–compared to the haphazard construction of so many recent comedies, the smooth efficiency of the proceedings comes as a welcome relief for those who value the narrative traditions of the past–and it may well play better for potential audiences in the more modest arenas of cable or DVD. And yet, I can’t really recommend it because of the inescapable fact that it really isn’t very funny. Oh well, as a much more successful comedy once concluded, nobody’s perfect.

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originally posted: 04/27/07 14:00:00
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OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2006 Seattle Film Festival For more in the 2006 Seattle Film Festival series, click here.
OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2006 Vancouver Film Festival For more in the 2006 Vancouver Film Festival series, click here.
OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2007 Florida Film Festival For more in the 2007 Florida Film Festival series, click here.

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  20-Apr-2007 (PG-13)
  DVD: 18-Sep-2007



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