Francis Veber has been an industrious source of chipper, very lucrative French screen farces for well over 30 years, working first as a screenwriter, then as a director, amassing credits on such popular titles as "La Cage aux Folles" and "The Dinner Game," as well as a smattering of American remakes. "The Valet," his latest product, is yet another inconsequential roundelay of playacting and ostensibly comic misunderstandings - there's no cross-dressing or hiding in wardrobes, but it's essentially that kind of movie. Odds that some critic will call it "as light and flaky as a fresh croissant" are about 2:1.
The story depends on a gently ridiculous set of circumstances - when captain of industry Pierre Levasseur (Daniel Auteuil) is photographed in public with his mistress, long-stemmed supermodel Elena (Alice Taglioni), the tabloid attention threatens his marriage and his livelihood: his wife, Christine (Kristin Scott Thomas), is also the majority stockholder in his company. In dire straits, he has his underlings track down Francois (Gad Elmaleh), the titular valet, a sweet, unmotivated schlemiel who happened to be walking past when the incriminating photos were snapped, and arranges for Francois and Elena to live as an admittedly unlikely couple. All of which further complicates things between Francois and his sweetheart, Emilie (Virginie Ledoyen - in one of the script's unaddressed loopholes, as every bit out of Francois's league as Taglioni is), who's just rejected his maladroit marriage proposal, and who's piqued by his new front-page romance.
Veber's garnered comparisons to Billy Wilder (whose last film, "Buddy Buddy," was based on a Veber play), but this whole affair's just a few pairs of blurred-out breasts away from the fare that used to rerun on USA's Up All Night - Orbison's "Pretty Woman" on the soundtrack is pure Eighties schmaltz. Amiable crooked-faced Everydoofus canoodles with ethereally-gorgeous-but-down-to-earth supermodels in a beer commercial fantasy scenario, with a horny-but-hopeless best friend (Danny Boon) filling out the Willie Aames part.
Still, I'd be remiss to say anything overly harsh about the sorts of movies Veber makes: they're unpretentious, economically made, distracting in an unoppressive, good-natured fashion - and as remote as they are from my own sense of humor, they seem to give a lot of people pleasure (chortles abounded in the screening I caught). The lesson: Though some of us may toss and turn over What is Art?, plenty of people just want to see something that comes in under an hour-and-a-half, makes a pretense of wit, and doesn't resort to violence. The audience certainly exists for pleasant twaddle glaceed with "Continental urbanity," and as American studios are generally too busy catering to fanboy fantasy to respond, they'll take what outsourced product they can get.
Even granting that the stakes are low, this isn't a model of its type - though at 85 brisk-stepping minutes it doesn't allow itself enough span to go slack, the movie never works up the momentum to get really whirling. As Christine and her philandering husband maneuver and counter-scheme, the crossfire of deceptions should be mounting toward a ludicrous crescendo... and though it's good to see Auteuil in fine hammy fettle, gnawing and spluttering after his mummified prestige work in "Cache," he lacks the screen time and situational opportunity to become the hoarse, harried engine that a story like this requires. And though Veber is no great shakes as a filmmaker (here committing yet another case of counterintuitive widescreen formatting), he has enough intelligence to back off and let his pretty cast ply our sympathies with shy smiles.
[Nick Pinkerton is a Reverse Shot staff writer and editor and frequent contributor to Stop Smiling.]