The latest incoming shipment in the modest import business of innocuously predictable French screen farces, Patrice Leconte's "My Best Friend" caters to that conservative audience who seek shelter under the implicit sophistication of subtitle, and who are still not acclimated to the blithe transgression that's become the standard in American screen comedy. But Leconte's inconsequential distraction is another sort of offense, displaying a total dearth of invention, relying only on its air of toothless benevolence. If you take your comedy seriously, the stateside arrival of "My Best Friend" is news every bit as devastating as the eleventh-hour renewal of "According to Jim."
Daniel Auteuil, of course, stars as Francois Coste, a crabbed, self-centered antique dealer so universally disliked that his business partner feels confident in daring him to produce evidence of having a single friend within ten days' time-this, the film's already incredulous setup, comes during a bizarre dinner scene in which a full table of professional acquaintances abruptly gang up on our protagonist, publicly eviscerating him for his faulty personality. Here "My Best Friend" establishes a precedent of overstepping the bounds of credible character and situation without offering any comic payoff to excuse the transgression; the scene is utterly unbelievable, but the hyperbole isn't sufficiently accented to invite laughter, and such bullying invites easy audience sympathy for Francois, rather than requiring that he earns it. In fact, the contempt that Francois draws throughout the film seems entirely out of proportion with the run-of-the-mill crank "type" that we see, as the movie throughout eschews any psychological specificities, opting instead for uninspired retreads of time-tested subplots (father-daughter tensions, a commitment-shy relationship) and banal generalities about the nature of friendship. The hand-me-down feel carries over to fizzled attempts to spark laffs in scenes so shopworn that anyone who's watched their share of film comedies can call the play-by-play, including this golden oldie: the protagonist discreetly whispers an embarrassing request in the ear of a shopkeeper, only to have the request broadcast through the store at top volume!
Returning to the plot: Francois, too foolishly prideful to turn down a dare, embarks on a frenzied hunt to secure a best friend. All seeming lost, he enlists Bruno (the vocationally likable Dany Boon, most recently seen in the equally featherweight "The Valet"), an amiable cabdriver whose fondest dream is to appear on a TV quiz show, to teach him how to be likable, how to talk to people outside the context of a business transaction - "comic" montage, scored by the omnipresent mischievous accordion, ensues. It's not worth going on about the rest - a handful of viewers will get what they came for and pronounce the thing "Very charming, very French!" while everyone who knows any better will keep a wide berth, and in a few months the next interchangeable pile of Gallic piffle will cross the Atlantic, as inevitably as the changing of seasons.
Nick Pinkerton is a Reverse Shot staff writer and frequent contributor to Stop Smiling.