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MOVIE REVIEW

'Apres' is droll but not dramatic

The epigram ''No good deed goes unpunished" gets a thorough workout in ''Apres Vous," Pierre Salvadori's haphazard comic divertissement about a good Samaritan with bad instincts. The movie is largely set in a busy Paris restaurant, and, not surprisingly, the food looks terrific. You may come out hungry for poached sea bass and a little starved for drama.

Still, it's fun watching the great, shaggy Daniel Auteuil register infinite shades of dismay. The actor plays Antoine, maitre d' at the tony Chez Jean, who, taking a shortcut through the park one night to meet his girlfriend Christine (Marilyne Canto), comes upon an unhappy fellow named Louis (Jose Garcia). Louis is in the midst of hanging himself from a tree branch, and Antoine suffers a few clocks to the head saving him, a harbinger of things to come.

Well, who among us wouldn't do the same? This sort of movie needs our complete identification with the hero if the comic gears are to fully mesh, yet Antoine goes so far for his new friend that you begin to wonder if there are other issues at play. There aren't, but it still hangs over the film like a question mark.

Antoine takes this sullen basket case home, puts him up on the couch, and gets him hired as the restaurant's new sommelier. Since Louis can't cross a room without suffering full-on emotional collapse, this takes some doing, and the funniest scenes in ''Apres Vous" deal with the sight gag of a clinically depressed man trying to sell a table of customers on a nice Burgundy. Only in France, ma cherie.

Louis is in a tailspin over his ex-girlfriend, a florist named Blanche (Sandrine Kiberlain), and, ever the meddler, Antoine tries to patch that up as well. He ends up falling for her, of course, and you might, too. Kiberlain has a gangling, wispy loveliness, and she's blessed with a Gallic honker of a nose that dominates her silhouette and makes the rest of her seem attractively uncertain.

Blanche has bad instincts about men: There's Louis, of course, and her latest boyfriend (Fabio Zenoni) has roving eyes. And this good-hearted puppy of a restaurateur hanging about the flower shop can't be good for her. But love and sex make her weak in the knees. ''I'm not a loose woman," she admits, ''but I'm easygoing."

''Apres Vous" thus collects all the elements for a slaphappy farce -- including a good bit where Antoine has to hop from table to table to keep the various people in his life from running into one another -- and then mysteriously leaves the motor idling. The misunderstandings and crisscrossing agendas never build to critical mass; the movie doesn't go insane, and it needs to.

Salvadori prefers to keep things droll, and while that may be tasteful, it's also frustrating. The director's reliance on a jaunty Franco-reggae tune to punctuate the goings on doesn't help; it's a remake of Mort Shuman's '70s French hit ''Allo Papa Tango Charlie," and you may be sick of its insistent good cheer the third time it comes on.

A larger part of the problem is Garcia's Louis, who's a phlegmatic, whiny pain in the neck in ways that are both funny and annoying. ''Apres Vous" can't decide whether to be a comedy of escalating embarrassment or a romance, and it's the role of Louis that suffers. Since we never get a bead on him, Auteuil's Antoine remains dramatically blurry as well.

The very last we see of Louis hints, with surprising bleakness, that the filmmaker has had little use for him all along. Alternately sweet and sour, ''Apres Vous" is a souffle that never fully rises. At least it's not a piece of crêpe.

Ty Burr can be reached at tburr@globe.com.

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