When I go to a French comedy, I'm never quite sure what I'm getting into. There's very little middle ground for me with that particular sub-genre of film -- either I really like it or the humor completely eludes me and I don't get it. The Valet, which had one screening here at AFI Dallas, was fortunately one of the former. This is one of the most crowd-pleasing French comedies I've seen since I saw OSS-117: Nest of Spies at last year's Seattle International Film Festival.
The Valet tells the tale of François Pignon (Gad Elmaleh), a sad-sack parking valet who shares his small, crummy apartment with his best friend, Richard (Dany Boon). Parking cars for a living isn't the type of job that lands you a lot of hot babes in Paris, and the two friends support each other in their mutual misery. Francois is not without hope, however. He's long been in love with childhood friend Emilie (Virginie Ledoyen), a fresh-faced intellectual who owns a tiny bookstore. Emilie's father is his father's doctor, and they've all known each other forever. Francois decides to propose to the girl of his dreams -- he pays for a ring on layaway for a year, and then he's ready.
Unfortunately, Emilie does not share his ardor -- or at least, she's so stressed out by the weight of the financial burden she's carrying for her little shop that the last thing she wants to think about is love and marriage. Things quickly take an interesting turn, however, when François finds himself inadvertantly caught up in a bit of intrigue surrounding a billionaire CEO having an affair with a supermodel. When the billionaire, Pierre Levasseur (Daniel Auteuil), gets caught on camera with his hot girlfriend, he and his slick but seedy attorney hatch a plan to save Lavasseur from a costly divorce. Their plan involves convincing Levasseur's wife (who owns 60% of the company)that the beautiful supermodel, Elena (stunning French actress Alice Taglioni) is really dating the guy who was walking past her in the photos -- François, who just happend to be in the wrong -- or right -- place when the pics were snapped..
Levasseur's lawyer makes François a deal: Let Elena move into his place, be seen and photographed with her everywhere, only for a few days. François agrees, and they also agree on a price -- the exact amount Emelie owes on her shop. From there, hilarity, as they say, ensues, as we get into the heart of the comedic farce of the film. Levasseur's wife, Christine (Kristin Scott Thomas), who is far more intelligent than her husband thinks, puts her own private detective on Elena's trail, Emilie sees François with Elena and feels pangs of more than friendship, and "The Princess and the Parking Valet," as the French press starts to call them, find they have more in common that they'd ever thought.
The plot is a tad predicatable -- we can pretty much figure out from the beginning how things are likely to go down -- but that doesn't make the film any less funny. This is in large part due to the direction of helmer Francis Veber, who keeps up the film's frantic pace while emphasizing the comedic elements. The film is also well-supported by an excellent ensemble cast, especially Elmaleh, whose expressive face rather reminded me of Jean-Pierre Léaud in his earlier days working with Truffaut. Boon and Elmaleh play off each other very well, and a side bit about François' father's hypochodriac doctor, who comes to take care of patients, but then ends up with them taking care of his own various ailments.
The film is genuinely funny, and at times the laughter from the packed house was so loud I was grateful for the subtitles so I could keep up. The film is slated for a limited release in April, and hopefully strong audience response here will help it expand his run. My only fear is that someone's going to get the idea to remake this film as an American film and screw it up beyond measure, but in the meantime, if The Valet comes to a theater near you, catch it while you can, and be prepared to laugh.