*A guest review today, from Nick Schager, of Slant Magazine
There's nothing new about the films of Francis Veber, director of The Dinner Game and The Closet. Decidedly old-school throwbacks to both classic Hollywood comedies of manners and bouncy French farces, the filmmaker's hits are pure superficiality, their intricate plot machinations and oversized performances containing barely a whiff of emotional or intellectual depth. Veber isn't about character development or thematic subtext; he's about light, frolicsome fun, the kind in which myriad strangers find themselves hopelessly embroiled in outrageous circumstances, and then stumble and bumble their way out of trouble and into love. With The Valet, he continues his career dedication to fanciful humor, spinning a tangled yarn about a restaurant valet, his small business-owning love interest, a corporate bigwig, his cold, greedy wife, and his supermodel lover, all of whom find their fates intertwined after a tabloid photographer takes an ill-advised picture.
The snapshot in question is of CEO Pierre Levasseur (Daniel Auteuil) and his gorgeous celebrity mistress Elena (Alice Taglioni), and it threatens to ruin Levasseur if it leads to divorce, as his wife Christine (Kristin Scott Thomas, speaking seamless French) is the majority shareholder in his companies. As a random passerby is also featured in the photo, Pierre claims that Elena was actually with this stranger, a cover story that forces Pierre to find the man and pay him to pose as Elena's lover for the paparazzi hordes. After an amazingly quick search, the innocent sap in question turns out to be François Pignon (Gad Elmaleh) – the name of most of Veber's naïve protagonists – a porter who lives with his clingy best friend Richard (Dany Boon) and who has recently had his marriage proposal rebuffed by lifelong love and deep-in-debt bookstore proprietor Emilie (Virginie Ledoyen), who is being aggressively pursued by a sleazy cell phone salesman (Patrick Mille).
Complicated by design, Veber's tale – which features even more peripheral players not worth mentioning – is nonetheless a decidedly routine and straightforward affair, proceeding with the well-oiled clockwork efficiency for which his films are known (and adored, at least in his native country). Minor twists and turns are sprinkled throughout The Valet, and Veber lays out his various strands with competence. Crossed paths, phone conversations-by-proxy, and Three's Company-style misunderstandings regularly crop up, events which are given genial life by a cast that only intermittently succumbs to unpleasant broadness – save, that is, for Auteuil, who's never passed up an opportunity to deliver an overblown bug-eyed stare. Issues of celebrity, the media, and capitalist power dynamics are cursorily referenced, but alongside a guiding belief in the power of love to conquer all, the primary focus remains squarely on the story's countless zigzags.
Considering that the plot is the thing, however, it's somewhat disheartening to find that the film doesn't contain a single moment that would qualify as a bona fide surprise. It's clear from the outset that coincidences, confusion and chance will play crucial roles in turning the characters' lives upside down. Yet knowledge of the genre's tried-and-true formula shouldn't preclude – as it does here – the inclusion of a few unpredictable incidents. A farcical Rubik's Cube narrative like this requires more excitement and mystery than Veber is willing to deliver, the director seemingly convinced that he can coast by on conventional middlebrow gags so long as he situates them in a picture-postcard Paris decorated by the Eiffel Tower and spurting fountains – a miscalculation compounded by an even more pressing shortcoming: the absence of momentum.
This lack of any dynamic energy, any hysterical verve, is what ultimately dooms The Valet's attempts at innocuous whimsy. François and Elena are forced to sleep in the same bed (how awkward!), Pierre becomes jealous of the phony couple's potentially real feelings for each other (how foolish!), and Emilie finds herself increasingly drawn to François after discovering that he's dating an internationally acclaimed hottie (how phony and nonsensical!), all developments which Veber depicts with a lethargy that undercuts any measure of rambling, rambunctious disorder. Whereas a runaway pace juiced by non-stop gags would have helped electrify some of the staler bits, the film instead proves far too polite, demure and safe to shoot for (or elicit) anything more than a very slight smile. And ultimately, Veber's newest Pignon is such a bland nobody that – like the enterprise as a whole – it's ultimately impossible to feel anything about his plight other than indifference.