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Movie Review

OSS 117: Lost in Rio

This spy’s an international man of foolery

Jean Dujardin (with Louise Monot) stars in this spoof as France’s top secret agent. Jean Dujardin (with Louise Monot) stars in this spoof as France’s top secret agent. (Emilie De La Hosseraye/Music Box)
By Mark Feeney
Globe Staff / May 21, 2010

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French culture is one of the glories of human existence — Impressionism, Proust, Chanel, the Nouvelle Vague — ah, tout c’est formidable! Except when it’s not. French rock ’n’ roll, anyone? Or French dopey comedy? For better or worse, that’s an American specialty. Gallic humor translates splendidly when it comes courtesy of Moliere. The drop-off from that height is very, very steep.

That’s why “OSS 117: Lost in Rio’’ comes as a reasonably pleasant surprise. OSS 117 is France’s top secret agent, a 007 with more elaborate vowels. Jean Dujardin, who also played him in “OSS 117: Cairo, Nest of Spies’’ (2008), looks like Sean Connery by way of Ben Gazzara — with a certain je-ne-sais-quoi of Nicolas Sarkozy. Is there a French word for unflappable jerk? This gives the very broad comedy an extra kick. Definitely dopey, “OSS 117: Lost in Rio’’ isn’t entirely stupid.

It’s 1968, and OSS 117 has been sent to Rio to clinch a deal with Von Zimmel (Rudiger Vogler), a Nazi on the lam. He has some microfilm with the name of every French wartime collaborator. “So it must be a very short list,’’ 117 says with a happy smile when informed of his mission. Once in Brazil, he meets a friend who’s a US agent (Ken Samuels). Our man expresses shock. “What would the CIA be doing in South America?’’ He asks this with genuine perplexity. Less annoying than Austin Powers, 117 is even dumber than Maxwell Smart.

The best thing in the movie is how it riffs on the ’60s. There are split screens galore, cheerfully lame rear-screen projection, and an encounter with hippies. One proffers a hallucinogen 117 thinks is called “RSVP.’’ We also pay a brief visit to the most ’60s place on the planet. No, not London, or San Francisco, or even Saigon, but that equatorial Alphaville, Brasilia.

The soundtrack includes Dean Martin singing “Gentle on My Mind,’’ a simultaneous nod to the Matt Helm series of ’60s spy spoofs and reminder that the canonical ’60s often diverge from that decade as actually experienced. Later on, a Nazi sings “The Girl From Ipanema’’ in heavily accented English. That sound coming from the lobby is Astrud Gilberto weeping.

Von Zimmel, in his nefarious, super-villain way, wants to found a Fifth Reich (don’t ask about the Fourth). It falls upon 117 — he does a lot of falling — to prevent this from happening. He has help from an attractive Mossad agent (Louise Monot), who winces, as do we, at 117’s obtusely anti-Semitic remarks. “No sausages’’ sums up his view of Jewish theology.

The fate of a non-Nazi future is determined atop the Jesus statue overlooking Rio — which means Ludovic Bource’s cunning score comes within inches (all right, centimeters) of copyright infringement of Bernard Herrmann’s “North by Northwest’’ theme. There’s a “Vertigo’’ angle to the plot, too, but what’s the point of a movie like this without allusion overload.

Mark Feeney can be reached at mfeeney@globe.com.

OSS 117: LOST IN RIO Directed by: Michel Hazanavicius

Written by: Jean-Francois Halin; inspired by the novels of Jean Bruce

Starring: Jean Dujardin, Louise Monot, Rudiger Vogler, Ken Samuels

At: Kendall Square

In French, with subtitles

Running time: 99 minutes

Unrated (nudity, obscenity, sexual situations)

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