Making people laugh is the specialty of the house where French writer-director Francis Veber is concerned, and he is awfully good at it. A complete master of cinematic farce, Veber's latest venture, "The Valet," makes creating deliciously funny comedy look a lot easier than it has any right to.
Veber, who remains enormously popular in France though he now lives in Los Angeles, has had more than 30 films produced from his screenplays, including several that were remade in the U.S. under titles like "The Birdcage" and "The Man With One Red Shoe."
The filmmaker's invariably superior originals, however, have also found an audience in this country, most notably one of his most recent successes, "The Dinner Game," which took home three Cesars, including one for Veber for best screenplay.
"The Valet" marks the inevitable return of one of Veber's most popular characters, the always-in-earnest if somewhat clueless Francois Pignon, a personage so durable he's been played by four different actors over the years.
Because this particular Pignon adventure has more emotional context (including richer parts for women) than "The Dinner Game," it's fortunate that the part is played this time by Gad Elmaleh, an actor audiences can warm to as well as laugh at.
This film's French title, "La Doublure," which translates as understudy or stand-in, someone who doubles for someone else's life, is more informative about the themes underlying the action than the American title (to which the Farrelly brothers have purchased the remake rights). But "The Valet" lets us know at once that Pignon's job this time around is parking cars at a fancy Parisian restaurant.
Though he lives with wacky fellow valet Richard (Dany Boon was Cesar-nominated for the part), Pignon dreams of marrying his childhood sweetheart Emilie (Virginie Ledoyen). But, immersed in the financial difficulties of running her own bookstore, she has no time to think of Pignon as anything but a brother.
Soulless billionaire Pierre Lavasseur (the versatile Daniel Auteuil, who played Pignon in Veber's "The Closet") has romantic problems of his own. Because his icy wife Christine (the impeccably bilingual Kristin Scott Thomas) is a major stockholder in his company, he lives in fear that she will discover his relationship with the leonine Elena (Alice Taglioni), who just happens to be the highest-paid supermodel in the world.
As always happens in Veber films, Pierre's worst nightmare comes to pass. A paparazzo grabs a shot of the mogul and his mistress together and, confronted by his wife, Pierre tries a desperate ploy. Elena isn't with him, he tells a frankly dubious Christine, she is with the nerdy-looking guy who, in reality, was simply walking by and is in the picture totally by accident. A nerdy guy named Pignon.
Because he is a billionaire, after all, Pierre has the financial and psychological means to persuade both Elena and Pignon to pretend, against all reason, to be a romantic couple. The bulk of "The Valet's" very funny 83 minutes shows how this is done and what the effect is on the flabbergasted people who know either of the parties involved.
One of the more endearing things about "The Valet" is that it places as much of a premium on acting decently as decent acting. Pignon is much more interested in his relationship with bookstore-owning Emilie than in his gorgeous new roommate. "It's like when you park a great car," he explains, ever the valet. "It's perfect but it's not mine." As for Elena, being gorgeous doesn't stop her from being perhaps the most level-headed person in the film, someone who helps Pignon in ways he isn't expecting.
While some of the sight gags on view in "The Valet" have roots that go back to the great silent clowns, Veber's innate understanding of what makes people laugh, his gift for impeccable timing and for getting his cast to work together like interlocking parts of a fine machine, are difficult to resist. While it's of course funny when Pierre tells his lawyer, "spare me your quips," we can all be grateful that Veber has not spared us his.
"The Valet." MPAA rating: PG-13 for sexual content and language. Running time: 1 hour, 23 minutes. In French; English subtitles. In selected theaters.