2½ stars (out of four)
Boulevard comedy may be paved with froth, but it's not easy for a writer to set up the right narrative equipment and for performers to run it properly. "The Valet" ("La Doublure" in its successful French debut) is the latest from writer-director Francis Veber, veteran master of the machine-tooled middlebrow diversion. While a few ticks below "The Dinner Game," a highlight of Veber's recent output, this smoothly acted contrivance offers a lesson or two in how to sell a certain kind of comedy--meaning, how not to oversell it.
Just as commedia dell'arte had its Pantalone and David Mamet has his recurring archetype by the name of Bobby Gould, Veber returns frequently to a character named Francois Pignon, a timid Everyman malleable enough to fit any scenario. In "The Valet," Francois is a lovelorn car-parker (Gad Elmaleh) smitten by a bookseller (Virginie Ledoyen), daughter of Francois' family physician. The bookseller considers Francois a friend, not a potential lover. Tragedy.
Then, comedy: Strolling down a Paris street one day, Francois crosses paths with a rich and married industrialist (Daniel Auteuil, practically the national actor of France) and his supermodel mistress (Alice Taglioni) at the precise moment a photographer snaps a picture of all three. Out of a publicity crisis comes an opportunity: The industrialist engineers a scheme wherein Francois and the mistress masquerade as a couple, much to the shock and envy of Francois' schlubby roommate (Dany Boon) and to the suspicion of the rich man's wife (Kristin Scott Thomas).
Veber's early stage training serves him well both as an adapter (he wrote the "La Cage aux Folles" screenplay) and as a maker of originals though, truth be told, "The Valet" isn't especially original. The supermodel plays matchmaker for Francois and his sweetie while Francois keeps up the ruse of his newfound celebrity, to moderate amusement. In the end Auteuil's self-interested millionaire gets what he deserves, although with less narrative invention than you'd like.
The actors never hit anything too hard or obviously. With the eagle-eyed Auteuil in particular, it's remarkable how he treats this sort of comedy with the same sort of ease and alacrity he brings to a dramatic role. Veber's liveliest supporting character is Pascal (Patrick Mille), a cell-phone salesman with a one-track mind. (The track leads straight to Femme Junction.) At one point he demonstrates his latest ringtone: the "Triumphal March" from Verdi's "Aida." In his hands, it's like a hunting horn, the sound of a would-be rake perpetually on the make.
Postscript: Last spring the Farrelly Brothers optioned the remake rights to "The Valet." Veber's film, which is pretty mild, might just benefit from some roughing-up. Then again . . . .
Written and directed by Francis Veber; photographed by Robert Fraisse; edited by Georges Klotz; music by Alexandre Desplat; production design by Dominique Andre; produced by Patrice Ledoux. A Sony Pictures Classics release; opens Friday at Landmark's Century Centre Cinema, Chicago, and Renaissance Place Cinema, Highland Park, and the CineArts 6 in Evanston. Running time: 1:25. MPAA rating: PG-13 (for sexual content and language).
Francois - Gad Elmaleh
Pierre - Daniel Auteuil
Elena - Alice Taglioni
Christine - Kristin Scott Thomas