With comedies these days drawing more from individual actors' talent than from the ingenuity and wit of a well-constructed screenplay, the world could use a good farce along the lines of La Cage Aux Folles or A Shot In The Dark. What a curse, then, that the only guy still making them is French director Francis Veber, whose name has long been synonymous with bad Americanized comedies like The Toy, Three Fugitives, Pure Luck, and Fathers' Day. Now approaching 70, Veber isn't about to switch gears at this late stage, and his latest, The Valet, bumbles along amiably without achieving so much as a laugh. There's something novel about watching the film go through its old-fashioned farcical paces, akin to visiting an ossified mammoth at the Natural History museum. But this time, the stitching of Veber's contrived entanglements falls apart at the tug of a thread, because nobody onscreen buys the ruse being perpetrated.
Forfeiting his signature Everyman quality for a manic, over-the-top performance, Daniel Auteuil stars as a billionaire who wants to cheat on his wife (Kristen Scott Thomas) and still hold onto his fortune. For two years, he and supermodel Alice Taglioni have carried on an affair in secret, but when a tabloid photographer catches them together on the street, Auteuil has some explaining to do. His tells his wife, who owns 60 percent of his business, that Taglioni's real lover is the other guy in the photo, a humble valet played by Gad Elmaleh. To cover up this ridiculous lie, Auteuil pays Taglioni and Elmaleh to pretend they're an item. Each of them has a noble reason for taking the money: Taglioni considers her $20 million a "deposit" on her future life with Auteuil after he divorces, while Elmaleh wants to use his far more modest sum to help the woman he loves (Virginie Ledoyen) get out of hock.
The biggest problem with The Valet is that Auteuil's wife isn't fooled for a second by this charade, and the supermodel and the valet are so resentful of their roles that they don't bother to sell it, either. And without the ruse, where's the comedy supposed to kick in? Veber seems to find it inherently funny that a modest wage-slave like Elmaleh could bag such a gorgeous babe, and she's paraded around like Kelly LeBrock in Weird Science, accompanied by a French rendition of "Pretty Woman." The fast friendship between Elmaleh and Taglioni has its endearing moments, but before long, everyone turns on Auteuil and the focus shifts back to his desperate mugging. The payoff is a final shot that's classic farce, the cherry on top of the sundae. It's also got whiskers as long as a cat's.