Religious satire in movies is still a tricky business, even if some of the greatest film artists--Bunuel and Fellini--have specialized in it. Two things help: either a truly earthy sense of life and humor or a half-giddy grasp of the divine. "The Favor, the Watch, and the Very Big Fish" (selected theaters) has neither.
What it does have is actors: a powerhouse lineup headed by Bob Hoskins, Jeff Goldblum, Natasha Richardson, Michel Blanc and Jean-Pierre Cassell. But they're not enough.
It's a peculiar, flirty little piece, almost mechanically whimsical, about a virginal French photographer (Hoskins) who specializes in religious tableaux, and his star-model (Jeff Goldblum), a dissolute pianist, who becomes the public's perfect image of Jesus: Their relationship is complicated by the model's insanity and the fact that both men are in love with the same woman (Richardson).
The movie has audacity, but it's a calculated audacity. You can feel the jokes coming, feel the whiff of irreverence, the willed naughtiness. Everything seems slightly off, beginning with the title, which not only has an ersatz French ring, but only tangential connections with the story. There's a favor and a watch in the film, but the fish skitters by as a quick sight gag in one of Louis' dinner-table scenes.
Part of "Favor's" problem is one of atmosphere. Is it French? Is it British? Is it anything? The movie is set in Paris and it's based, by writer-director Ben Lewin, on a short story, "Rue Saint-Suplice" by Marcel Ayme--but, even when the camera wanders along the Seine--it never feels French. Hoskins, a truly brilliant actor, somehow submerges himself in the skin of introverted little Louis, who makes us feel his mix of misplaced artistic and religious devotion, his squalid, circumscribed little life, his desperate sexuality. His Louis may not exactly suggest Paris; he does hit the universal.
Richardson, on the other hand, carries London along with her, just as Goldblum brings along Eastern U.S.A. Cassell and Blanc--that extraordinary actor of "M. Hire" and "Tenue de Soiree"--can't drag in Paris single-handedly, especially since their accents make them seem like strangers there themselves.
Ayme, recently resuscitated by director Claude Berri in his all-star adaptation of "Uranus," was a writer whose moralistic themes and bitter anti-communism largely cost him an audience in the 1960s. He's notable for his lusty characters and sense of irony; Ayme's "Clerambard" is a truly witty morality play. But "Favor" isn't a witty film--not in the manner of Rene Clair, Robert Hamer or Philippe De Broca (whose ex-wife Michelle served as producer), or any of the models Lewin may have in mind.
It has a kind of determined frivolity, the appearance of wit without the style or the inner fire--and innumerable scenes that have some promise fall flat: Hoskins posing his scruffy models into lazy last suppers, Goldblum trying to kill another rival for Richardson with a flambeau or a live lobster.
One scene that is amusing--Hoskins and Richardson meeting as strangers in a dubbing studio to post-record orgasmic cries for a sex movie--succeeds purely through the ingenuity of the actors, through Richardson's dull-eyed, rote moans and Hoskins' terrified yurps. Even there, when the scripted jokes start to come on--they share a cigarette, say they've never had it so good--the comedy abandons all subtlety, waving semaphore flags of innuendo.
It's not easy to do films like "The Favor, the Watch and the Very Big Fish" (rated R for language and sensuality), and Lewin, a first-time feature director, who has won awards for his commercials and British TV shows, deserves some credit for daring the unusual, trying something that only a real virtuoso of comedy could bring off. But credit carries you only so far. In trying to wring out waves of Gallic laughter, or deeply amuse us with its mock shows and mock-ups of worship, "Favor" hasn't got a prayer.
'The Favor, the Watch
and the Very Big Fish'
Bob Hoskins: Louis Abinard
Jeff Goldblum: Pianist/Model
Natasha Richardson: Sybil
Michel Blanc: Norbert
A Trimark Pictures presentation of a Films Ariane/Fildebroc/Umbrella Film production. Director/Screenplay Ben Lewin. Producer Michelle De Broca. Co-producer Simon Perry. Cinematographer Bernard Zitzerman. Editor John Grover. Costumes Elisabeth Tavernier. Running time: 1 hour, 29 minutes.
MPAA-rated R (language, sensuality).