In "La Cage aux Folles," one of the biggest French hits ever to promenade across the Atlantic, a gay man pretends he's straight. In "The Closet," our French import du jour, a straight man pretends he's gay. To paraphrase a character in the latter film, that's progress, isn't it?
Yes and no. That both films were written by Francis Veber shows a bit of what you might call wheel-spinning. Both films are good-natured farces that ostensibly promote tolerance, even while relying on some pretty hoary sex-oriented comic devices--and double-entendres and cartoon bigots--and attempting to make audiences feel good about themselves because they're so progressive and homosexuality is such a riot.
Still, "The Closet," directed by Veber, is well-intentioned enough, even if its comedy is broader than a landing strip at Orly Airport. The hero, Francois Pignon (Daniel Auteuil), is the most unremarkable of accountants, working for a leading condom company (no, Moliere is not credited as co-writer here) and perceived by everyone around him as the most boring person on Earth. Boring enough, in fact, that when it's time to cut costs at the rubber works, he's the first to make the hit list. Who, after all, will even notice he's gone?
Francois gets wind of it, however (that he's in a bathroom stall while two co-workers discuss his fate outside is the kind of comic cliche Veber seems comfortable with). And since his wife has divorced him, his son couldn't care less about him and he has no friends, Francois decides to jump off his balcony.
Because it's still so early in the movie, the big leap is interrupted by Francois' neighbor Belone (Michel Aumont), who suggests another solution: Send the company compromising photographs of Francois at a gay bar in a counterfeit attempt at blackmail and the company will be too afraid of a backlash to let him go. "Where do I get the pictures?" Francois asks. "Let me take care of that," Belone says.
The doctored photos create a stir at the office, especially among the dimmer bulbs like Felix (Gerard Depardieu who, in a confirmation of Auteuil's stardom, gets second billing). Felix is such a homophobe he's hard to take seriously, if only because few people would be so stupid as to say the things he apparently feels. Convinced by his co-workers that he must mend fences with Francois to keep his job, Felix tries so hard he falls on his face. And in love.
Michele Laroque, as Francois' colleague Mlle. Bertrand, adds a touch of intelligence to the goings on, although that may not be the best thing for the film: That she smells a rat is OK. But why is she alone?
Veber, also responsible for "The Dinner Game," apparently has a finger on the pulse of French audiences and Gallic-minded Americans, but there's just not a lot of freshness in this "Closet." The Eduoard Molinaro-directed "La Cage" was released in 1978. And Matthew Perry, Dylan McDermott and Neve Campbell played out this same gay gag in 1999's "Three to Tango." But Auteuil is always fun to watch, even while wearing a condom cap in a gay pride parade.
* MPAA rating: R, for a scene of sexuality. Times guidelines: Mature subject matter.
'The Closet (Le Placard)'
Daniel Auteuil: Francois Pignon
Gerard Depardieu: Felix Santini
Thierry Lhermitte: Guillaume
Michele Laroque: Mlle. Bertrand
Miramax Zoe presents, in association with Gaumont and EFVE Films, released by Miramax Zoe. Director Francis Veber. Producer Alain Poire. Screenplay by Francis Veber. Cinematographer Luciano Tovoli. Editor Georges Klotz. Costume designer Jacqueline Bouchard. Music Vladimir Cosma. Production design Gilles Boillot. Running time: 1 hour, 26 minutes.
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