What do Martin Short, Ted Danson, Nick Nolte and Robin Williams have in common? Each has starred in at least two remakes — that’s two apiece — of French comedies (Williams has done three). And none of these are as good as the original. Of course it’s not unusual for a remake to be worse than the first film, but there’s a special consideration to be made regarding Hollywood’s translations of French comedy in particular. They tend to be bad even for remakes. They tend to be bad even for films that are bad for remakes. Here are some examples: “Father’s Day,” “Pure Luck,” “Taxi,” “My Father the Hero,” “Jungle 2 Jungle.” Even when a filmmaker handles his own remake, as Roger Vadim (“And God Created Woman”), Jean-Marie Poire (“Just Visiting”) and Francis Veber (“Three Fugitives”) have done, the result is typically awful.
This is why it’s shocking and exciting that “Dinner for Schmucks” is not at all terrible. In fact it’s hilarious (ironically so). And earlier in the week this remake of “The Dinner Game” had a 100% positive score on Rotten Tomatoes (it’s gone down to 75% by the time I’m posting this, but this is still more positive). Especially for a redo of Veber that’s incredible — more than ten films he’s written and/or directed, including the original “Three Fugitives” (“Les fugitifs”) have been remade in the past, most of them poorly. The sad thing is that the success of “Dinner for Schmucks” will encourage more remakes and most won’t be flukes like this. Already Veber’s “The Closet” and “The Valet” have English-language versions in development, and Chris Rock is working on a version of “La premiere etoile,” and I expect the worst from them all.
But I’m going to keep things positive and rather than go with my first inclination, a list of about 20 reasons why not to remake French comedy (including Blake Edwards’ redo of Truffaut’s “The Man Who Loved Women” and other films by Nora Ephron, Stanley Donen, Gene Wilder, Chris Columbus, John Landis and Leonard Nimoy), I’d like to highlight the only five other surprisingly decent movies — a few are even great! — based on French comedies. Hopefully Hollywood can figure out what they did right.
“The Toy” (Richard Donner, 1982)
Remake of: “Le Jouet,” aka “The Toy” (Francis Veber, 1976)
After Dick Donner left Metropolis and before Richard Pryor entered, they partnered together for this remake about a man who is literally bought as a plaything for a spoiled rich kid (Scott Schwartz). Many think the American version is racist, because it implies slavery. But what if a white comedian had filled the role instead of Pryor, as was the case in Veber’s version? Exactly, it would be the same movie. So isn’t it more racist to call the movie racist? Or is it impossible to ignore the race and the nation’s past? It’s also been called out as being inappropriate for kids due to all the Confederate flags. Okay, so maybe it was intentional to reference slavery, feature a Ku Klux Klan fundraiser and have Jackie Gleason play a man named U.S. But as commentary. Future Oscar nominee Carol Sobieski (“Fried Green Tomatoes”) may not have adapted Veber’s original script into a perfect satire, and a lot of the comedy’s irony comes through its casting and is likely unintentional, but for a kids’ movie I do believe it’s a fine and very underrated social commentary.
“The Birdcage” (Mike Nichols, 1996)
Remake of “La cage aux Folles,” aka “Birds of a Feather” (Edouard Molinaro, 1978)
Based on the play by Jean Poiret
I once had a girlfriend who I suspected suspected me of being a closet homosexual. All I really remember of the relationship is that she made me read “Running with Scissors,” which I despised, and forced me to watch “The Birdcage,” a movie I never had interest in seeing. Not because of its gayness but rather because it looked like an over the top disaster, primarily because it came out during the peak time of Robin Williams’ excessive performances (this was also his second French comedy remake, directly between “Nine Months” and “Father’s Day”). But aside from having a trite ashamed-of-the-family plot (the original was co-scripted by Veber, by the way) that’s usually confined to single sitcom episodes — and “You Can’t Take it With You” — I was shocked at how much I enjoyed it. And amazed that Williams isn’t a humongous ham. Maybe that bit of facial hair allowed for some restraint (you all know the rule about Williams and beards, I hope). Also, how could he possibly have competed with Nathan Lane? In hindsight, I appreciate “The Birdcage” even more now that I’ve seen “The Kids Are All Right.” The former may exploit gays more by treating homosexual men as fodder for flaming farce, but at least its couple have great chemistry. And even as pawns in a similarly predictable story and even as tools of rhetoric the characters here are more dimensional and believable than those in the newer comedy. I’m actually disappointed there were no remakes of the two “La cage aux folles” sequels.
“Down and Out in Beverly Hills” (Paul Mazursky, 1986)
Remake of “Boudu sauvé des eaux,” aka “Boudu Saved from Drowning” (Jean Renoir, 1932)
Based on the play by René Fauchois
Paul Mazursky has made some good films, but could you imagine taking a class focused on his work? Only at his alma mater and mine, Brooklyn College, which is how I came to appreciate him more (it was a shared auteurs class, more concentrated on Billy Wilder, whose “Buddy Buddy” I wish could be included in this list). Prior to re-watching “Down and Out” in an academic setting I recalled it primarily as that movie in which Nick Nolte eats dog food. Now I appreciate it primarily as the movie in which Nick Nolte gives Bette Midler a life-changing orgasm. I honestly have always loved Bette Midler and this reawakened that appreciation (don’t start agreeing with that ex-girlfriend of mine, though, because of this admission). Another thing I can’t get enough of: Richard Dreyfuss having an aneurysm because of a house guest he can’t stand (see also “What About Bob?”). The film is of course also a fine comedy of manners and a look at the class struggle in Beverly Hills (film reference intended) in the midst of the Reagan years.
“Quick Change” (Howard Franklin, 1990)
Remake of “Hold-Up” (Alexandre Arcady, 1985)
Based on the novel “Quick Change” by Jay Cronley
It’s hard to top Jean-Paul Belmondo in a clown suit (see Spout’s list of 10 Most Clever Bank Robberies in Movies), but Bill Murray does his best assuming the role of cynical bank robber Grimm, who really doesn’t heart NY. He is joined by Geena Davis (taking over for Kim Cattrall) and a very whiny Randy Quaid as they navigate through — but get very lost in — Brooklyn and Queens during an on-the-run odyssey towards JFK Airport. Filled with tons of terrific character actors, such as Tony Shalhoub and Stanley Tucci, and a lot to say about New York at the end of Koch’s delusional decade in office, this is one remake I consider better than the original (which was co-scripted by Veber). It would have been neat if they’d gotten Belmondo for a cameo, though. He could have played the white bread car thief/mugger.
“True Lies” (James Cameron, 1994)
Remake of “La Totale!” (Claude Zidi, 1991)
How many people are even aware that “True Lies” is based on another film, let alone a silly French spy comedy that has more in common, tone-wise, with the recent Ashton Kutcher-Katherine Heigl bomb “Killers”? Frankly, long before I knew it was a remake, I had doubts that Cameron could deliver such an enjoyably simple action flick with no aliens, robots or underwater scenes. But Arnold Schwarzenegger was back on top for one more great action film after hitting a bump with “Last Action Hero,” and Jamie Lee Curtis was also the best and sexiest she’d been in years. And weren’t we all pleasantly surprised by Tom Arnold? Now having the knowledge that Schwarzenegger did a French comedy remake, aren’t you stunned it’s this and not “Junior” or “Twins”?