Sweet ride 

French comedy, well translated

It’s a juicy premise: A nerdy parking attendant gets caught in the paparazzi crossfire with a billionaire tycoon and his gorgeous supermodel mistress, so to protect his business empire from his predatory wife, the tycoon hires the parking attendant to live with the supermodel to keep up appearances.

Juicy, all right, and for most of The Valet, director Francis Veber (The Dinner Game, The Closet) squeezes the most out of it. Veber, perhaps France’s most internationally bankable comedy director, specializes in broad farce laced with hairpin plot turns and appealingly trite situations pitched somewhere between Blake Edwards and “Three’s Company.” With three successful features now pegged on the same sitcom misapprehensions, Veber’s métier is starting to feel a bit off-the-rack, but that’s not to say it’s not enjoyable—The Valet’s laughs come hard and fast. And at a scant 85 minutes, it hardly outstays its welcome. It’s one of those rare comedies you actually wish were a little bit longer, if only because it ends so abruptly.

François Pignon (a recurring character in Veber’s films, though only in name and always played by a different actor) parks cars at a ritzy restaurant opposite the Eiffel Tower. Desolate after his girlfriend (Virginie Ledoyen) turns down his marriage proposal, he stumbles into a paparazzi ambush arranged by the gossip press to capture tycoon Levasseur (Daniel Auteuil) with supermodel Elena (Alice Taglioni), who has just broken off their affair after waiting a fruitless two years for him to divorce his wife (Kristin Scott Thomas). The wife, meanwhile, stands to win big if she divorces the tycoon and she’s ready to do so on the slightest pretext. So while Levasseur grudgingly goes along with the ploy of letting the press have its field day with “The Princess and the Parking Attendant,” his wife hires her own detectives to put the lie to this farce within a farce. All of this is established within the first 10 minutes. Characters are typed, battle lines drawn, and this splendid comic clockwork stylishly set in motion.

So many cheap thrills! Veber is right at home with the elastic rules of farce, which allow the hoariest tropes to sneak in under his audience’s taken-for-granted suspension of disbelief. Of course Pignon’s cramped bachelor pad—which he shares with a layabout roomie providing extra comic relief where none is strictly required—is going to be located opposite an abandoned building handy for photo surveillance by the wife’s private detectives. Of course Pignon is too broke to buy curtains, so to keep up appearances he and the supermodel have to share his tiny bed. Add plenty of sight gags involving flambés and inattentive waiters, etc., etc. and—on paper, anyway—you’ve got a universal template for screwball comedy.

So what elevates The Valet above one’s modest expectations, particularly when for all the twists and turns its trajectory is fairly obvious from the outset? Well, I say obvious, but the thing about The Valet is that everyone in it is French, and I don’t know about you, but the rules of romantic engagement in French movies have always struck me as pretty inscrutable. French couples in movies will fight for five minutes, saying the most terrible things before someone warns, “You’d better stop before I get angry.” Likewise, after completely gutting him (“I don’t want to get married, and certainly not to you! You’re like
my kid brother!”), Pignon’s girlfriend says she doesn’t want to hurt him and actually chides him for looking so devastated. The candor of a French argument often surprises me, particularly when it turns out to be just a conversation. And this phenomenon has a way of keeping contemporary French romantic comedy fresh for me from film to film because I’m culturally oblivious to certain character tip-offs that would easily give away the endings of some American movie counterparts.

Another thing The Valet has going for it is casting, and since all its characters are sealed off in neat hermetic packets, they really only need to be caricatures. Daniel Auteuil is familiar to American audiences, and the conniving executive seems to be a staple role for him. Gad Elmaleh brings the right blend of nebbish and nice guy to the Pignon franchise, not to mention the permanent hangdog expression that makes him radioactively sympathetic. Alice Taglioni is ravishing as the supermodel, sometimes recalling a young Brigitte Bardot. The icy Kristin Scott Thomas, as the would-be divorcée, is always a welcome sight.

If The Valet has a damning flaw, it’s the ripped-from-the-projector ending that doesn’t quite live up to the fabulous set-up. Considering the ludicrous premise and breakneck pace, though, I can’t exactly say how it might have been better.

Small potatoes, anyway. The Valet is purely for fun, and there’s nothing wrong with fun. Or supermodels.
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