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MOVIE REVIEW : A THINKING MAN’S POLICE COMEDY

Times Staff Writer

“My New Partner” (at the Royal, the funniest French film since “La Cage aux Folles,” is the thinking person’s “Beverly Hills Cop.” It’s for those who don’t mind subtitles but for whom gratuitous violence marred full enjoyment of the Eddie Murphy vehicle.

Philippe Noiret’s veteran Paris police inspector may be middle-aged and bulky, but he’s as fast on his feet as Murphy was when it comes to applying his own freewheeling interpretation of the law. To the deep chagrin of his new partner (Thierry Lhermitte), a prim rookie from the provinces, Noiret would seem to be as much of a crook as the guys they’re supposed to be nailing. Just for openers, what’s to be made of a flic who routinely listens to the horse races rather than the police calls?

No matter how outrageous his behavior, Noiret always manages to be a step ahead of Lhermitte in justifying his actions. Lhermitte, for example, has witnessed Noiret dine well for free countless times at a local bistro before Noiret explains in exasperation that he feels that it’s a fair exchange for looking the other way in regard to the establishment’s weekly crap game, a practice that in turn yields lots of valuable tips from the proprietor.

Much of “My New Partner’s” fun derives from watching writer-director Claude Zidi glide gleefully over such patches of moral thin ice, always teetering on the edge but never quite falling into the abyss.

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Zidi’s ploy is first to allow Noiret to seduce us with his formidable wit and charm, inviting us to enjoy the vicarious pleasure of his larcenous shenanigans--his clever workingman getting the better of the Establishment, as it were. Zidi then gradually lets us discover that Noiret can really swing into action over serious matters, as in the pursuit of a drug dealer. What’s more, Zidi knows better than to let Noiret off scot-free.

Even so, Noiret bends--indeed, outright breaks--the law so cheerfully and with such frequency that it’s conceivable that “My New Partner” will leave some feeling squeamish. Fortunately, there’s plenty of comic inducement not to take the picture too seriously.

Noiret is a joy to behold, and after nearly 30 years in films, he commands the screen with the majesty of such vintage French masters as Louis Jouvet and Michel Simon. A generous actor, he makes everyone else look good, too. The clean-cut (rather than handsome) Lhermitte--known to American audiences from “Come September” or “My Best Friend’s Girl"--comes unstarched quite believably under Noiret’s influence, and a strong assist from Grace de Capitani’s sweet, jazzy call girl. Nightclub queen Regine is another casting gem as Noiret’s live-in hooker who’s reached the age where Noiret is her only client, an arrangement that has brought domestic bliss to both.

Much of the workaday world of the perfectly paced “My New Partner” (Times-rated Mature because of adult themes and situations) is, for that matter, warm--even cozy, filled with as much camaraderie as crime. This is more a comedy of character and behavior rather than slapstick. As such, it seems to be taking place in a world more real than that of “Beverly Hills Cop.”

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