November 28, 2007

MOVIES: The Valet (Francis Veber, 2006/US 2007)

Veber has built a career on perfectly crafted light comedies, often built around an ordinary guy who gets the best of a more powerful or wealthy man. The Valet is a fine example of Veber's work; it's nothing more than fluffy entertainment, but it's very nicely made entertainment.

The powerful wealthy man this time is billionaire businessman Pierre (Daniel Auteuil), who is caught by the paparazzi with his supermodel mistress, Elena (Alice Taglioni). Pierre's wife, Christine (Kristin Scott Thomas) is not amused when the photo makes the papers. Pierre tries frantically to talk his way out of the mess. "I don't know her," he claims; "she's with him," pointing to another man who happened to be walking past when the photo was taken.

That man is a parking lot valet named François Pignon (Gad Elmaleh); in desperation, Pierre offers François and Elena large amounts of money to live together and pretend to be a couple for as long as it takes to convince Christine that he's done nothing wrong. Christine, of course, is not fooled, and the deception causes complications in François' own romantic life.

(For some reason, there is often a character named François Pignon in Veber's movies; it's not the same character from movie to movie, and he's generally played by a different actor each time. Auteuil played his own Pignon in Veber's The Closet.)

The cast is first-rate. With his beady eyes and pursed lips, Auteuil is a natural at playing uptight businessmen; Elmaleh is a charming sad sack. Richard Berry shows off some sharp comic timing as Pierre's lawyer; combined with his droopy eyes and gravelly voice, it reminded me of Jerry Orbach. But the toughest role here, I think, is that of Elena. She is the supermodel/mistress, after all, and it would be easy to hate her; she has to be incredibly sweet and warm to win our sympathy, and Taglioni pulls that off without becoming too syrupy or gushy.

It's great fun to watch the complications and plots of the various characters play out, and if you can occasionally see the next plot twist coming, it's hard to grumble when it's done with such charm and style.

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