'The Valet' flirts with romance but doesn't commit
"The Goat ," " The Toy ," "The Dinner Game ," "The Closet " -- France's Francis Veber has been cooking slapstick souffles so long he could do it in his sleep. As lightly enjoyable as it is, "The Valet " suggests he's starting to. The new movie is tart and weightless, and it entertains without leaving a mark. Not that there's anything wrong with that, but at 85 minutes, "The Valet" at times feels like a blueprint for a farce rather than the farce itself.
Neat concept, though, even if it's the usual Veber switcheroo. Pierre (Daniel Auteuil ), a vain rooster of a Paris CEO, lands in the tabloids when he's photographed on the street with his mistress, a supermodel named Elena (Alice Taglioni ). Desperate to convince his frosty wife Christine (Kristin Scott Thomas ) it's a mistake, he points out a passerby in the photo and says the model must be with that guy.
That guy is François Pignon (Gad Elmaleh ), a gentlehearted parking valet at a restaurant in the Trocadero. Pierre and his old fox of a lawyer (Richard Berry ) convince the model to move in with François, at least until the wife calls off the private detectives. Since Christine's the primary shareholder of his assets, the CEO is out to protect his business more than his marriage.
Both the model and the valet have reasons to go along with the charade -- she wants to blackmail Pierre into leaving his wife; he wants just enough money to pay the mortgage on the bookstore owned by his childhood sweetheart, Emilie (Virginie Ledoyen ). With all his toys thus wound up, Veber sets them spinning merrily into each other.
The most obvious gags in "The Valet" are the ones about the bombshell and the schmo: How the press and François's pals can't believe they're a couple, and how a friendship is formed precisely because they're the only people here who don't want anything from each other. "A guy too rich paid me to sleep with a girl too pretty in a bed too small," sighs François, and believe it or not, he's complaining.
This isn't a sex comedy; it's a frothy little flirt comedy that's more interested in commiseration than consummation. Everyone's likable except the big bad businessman, and Auteuil makes him a figure of comic obliviousness -- a man panicking as his life gets away from him. Scott Thomas is predatory elegance personified (how nice to see her wrap her measured cadences around French vowels for a change) and Taglioni brings a playful spark to the supermodel. One of Veber's less subtle ironies is that Elena's the sharpest person in the entire movie, possibly in all of Paris.
As the title character, Elmaleh is deeply decent, and that in itself is the charm and the limitation of the director's binary view of the world. There are the cynical and there are the naïve, and the latter always drive the former crazy by bumbling their way to the top. Veber has drawn this cartoon over and over, and in "The Valet" it threatens to turn into a drolly abstract doodle.