Too serious to be an out-and-out comedy, too funny not to be one, "My Best Friend" is a lot easier to enjoy than to classify. Like all the films of French writer-director Patrice Leconte, it doesn't fit into a tidy category, and this is very much part of the plan.
"I liked the idea of a movie that turns on its head," says Leconte, whose work includes "Intimate Strangers," "Ridicule," "Man on the Train" and the popular "Les Bronzes" comedies. "Like a plane in an air show that takes off normally, but after going into a tailspin, ends up flying upside down."
Using two top French actors, Daniel Auteuil and Dany Boon (who recently costarred in "The Valet"), Leconte and co-writer Jerome Tonnerre explore the notion of friendship, specifically that between men. Is the ability to make friends something that can be taught, and if so, how steep is the learning curve?
Auteuil, a master at looking calculating and shrewd ("Daniel puts more faith in a look or a smile than in a thousand words," says the director), plays Francois. He's a successful Parisian antiques dealer, the kind of wily operator who so lives for his profession that the only reason he goes anywhere, even funerals, is to work the room.
One day, on a whim, he shocks his business partner Catherine (Julie Gayet) by buying at auction a hugely expensive 5th century Greek vase celebrating friendship. The resulting tiff ends up in a bet: Either Francois produces the real-life best friend he insists he has or Catherine gets to keep the vase.
Though in fact he has nothing even resembling a best friend, Francois is stung enough by the accusation, and the bet, to attempt to produce one. He tries a number of amusing stratagems before coming across an affable cab driver named Bruno (Boon).
While Bruno tends to bore his friends with his preoccupation with trivia, he is someone with a real gift for people. Impressed, Francois hires him to teach him how to connect with his fellow humans.
Given that Francois is the kind of killjoy who empties a room when he says "the drinks are on me," teaching him Bruno's three rules for friendship — "smiling, sincere, sociable" — turns out to be a lot harder than it looks.
But though both men are surprised to find themselves enjoying the process, there turns out to be a lot more to this friendship business than either one of them suspects, and "My Best Friend" doesn't shy away from numerous twists and turns. Like that airplane Leconte mentioned, we're never quite sure where it will land, but it's good to have a capable pilot at the controls.
"My Best Friend." MPAA rating: PG-13 for some strong language. Running time: 1 hour, 30 minutes. In French with English subtitles. Exclusively at the Landmark, Pico and Westwood boulevards, L.A. (310) 281-8233.