If you're a ninth-grade French teacher starved for something to show your kids, your movie has arrived. The new farce The Valet is tailor-made for a pack of unruly, Ritalin-doped 13-year-olds. The dialogue is simple and easy to understand, the characters are all easily identifiable Gallic stereotypes, and there's a slew of juvenile sex jokes and double entendres to keep even the biggest drooling underachievers occupied. The only thing missing is a beret, or maybe a guest appearance by Pepe Le Peu in the animated opening-credits sequence.
To be fair, if anyone's earned the right to make a hoary, predictable comedy of errors, it's Francis Veber. For almost 40 years from the Tall Blond Man With One Black Shoe to La Cage Aux Folles to The Closet the writer-director has specialized in the art of labored setups, slammed-door punchlines and bug-eyed double- and triple-takes. He even recycles the same hero from time to time, the forever put-upon, uncouth Francois Pignon (played here by the droopy comedian Gad Elmaleh). Short of the Broadway stage or a decent prime-time sitcom, you don't often see comedy this unapologetically broad, and when it works, the results can be sublime which might explain Hollywood's tendency to attempt crummy, flat remakes of Veber's scripts. (My Father the Hero, anyone? How about The Toy?)
It also explains the bevy of talented actors who sign on to mug their way through Veber's films. The Valet is stuffed with them, starting with the venerable Daniel Auteuil, last seen on these shores squirming his way through Michael Haneke's philosophical thriller Caché. Here, he does some bourgeois squirming and stammering, and foaming at the mouth of a different sort, playing Pierre, a callous billionaire trying desperately to hang onto both his supermodel mistress Elena (the leggy Alice Tagloni) and his shareholder wife Christine (Kristin Scott Thomas, in regal-bitch mode). The type of guy the paparazzi follow everywhere (think Trump), Pierre is caught not so much in flagrante delicto with Elena as he is in mid-meltdown, during one of her many "it's your wife or me" moments.
Luckily for the both of them, the sad-sack Francois he's just been dumped by his would-be sweetheart (Virginie Ledoyen) happens to be tromping by just as the camera snaps. With the help of his Machiavellian lawyer Foix (Richard Berry), Pierre can conveniently lie to his wife that the downtrodden valet is the one who's really with the drop-dead blonde, which will mean an endless series of payoffs, fake dates and the inevitable arranged-living situation. The loveless schlub gets to know the untouchable princess, everyone starts looking at everyone else in a different light and revenge is plotted against the heartless rich bastards who set the ball rolling in the first place: If The Valet were any more classically farcical, you'd find a clip of it embedded in the Wikipedia definition of the word.
There's a labor strike in The Valet, and a special guest appearance by the leonine fashion designer Karl Lagerfeld, but that's about as topical as this movie gets; if it's satire you want, go rent an old Luis Buñuel film. Even still, there's something unnecessarily dopey and perfunctory about the proceedings. Veber doesn't bring the same flair to his direction as he does to his writing: The sets are too artificially lit, there's little movement in the camerawork and the ample physicality of the capable cast is, for the most part, neutered. When you see a distracted waiter serve up a flambé, the question is not "Will it set that rich woman's hairdo on fire?" but "How long will it take for that rich woman's hairdo to catch on fire?" Of course, by the time that thought crosses your mind, it's too late; the joke dies due to the film's lazy, slack editing.
This is one instance where a flashy Hollywood transplant may actually improve things knock on wood and sure enough, the intermittently inspired Farrelly brothers have been attached to the English-language remake. Whether it's better or worse than the authentic version currently in theaters, one thing is certain, no matter what the location: Ninth graders will still eat it up.
Showing at the Maple Art Theatre, 4135 W. Maple Rd., Bloomfield Hills; 248-263-2111.
Michael Hastings writes about film for Metro Times. Send comments to [email protected].