I first became aware of French farceur Francis Veber in 1984 when I saw his hilarious Les Comperes, which starred the purposely mismatched pair of nebbish Pierre Richard and brutish Gerard Depardieu in a comedy about two wildly different men who team up to find a lost teen. Veber had been around before then, of course, much to my ignorance. He wrote Edouard Molinaro's huge 1978 hit La Cage Aux Folles and its 1980 sequel before teaming Depardieu and Richard for the first time a year later in La Chevre. He also used Depardieu and Richard again in 1986 in Les Fugitifs, a faint sequel to Les Comperes.
After this burst of successful activity in the mid-1980s, Veber has worked less than we would have suspected at the time. He's provided screenplays for several English-language adaptations of his French hits (Three Fugitives, Pure Luck, Father's Day, The Bird Cage), none of which have rivaled the originals. As a writer/director, he has, however, helmed two more notable comedies, The Dinner Game (1998) and The Closet (2001), the latter starring the estimable Daniel Auteuil as a mid-level corporate executive who poses as a homosexual to keep his company from laying him off. Among Veber's signature quirks is his habit of naming a protagonist Francois Pignon, which he's done five times, or a variant, Francois Perrin, which he's used on three other occasions. It's Pignon who is front and center in Veber's current The Valet, not the funniest of his farces, but one that's clever enough to provide a satisfying alternative to the blockbuster menu otherwise available at your nearby megaplex.
In The Valet, the most recent incarnation of Francois Pignon (Gad Elmaleh) becomes involved in a billionaire's plot to hide an adulterous affair from his wife. Business tycoon Pierre Levasseur (Daniel Auteuil) is having an affair with supermodel Elena Simonsen (Alice Taglioni). When Levasseur and Elena are photographed together by a paparazzo, Pignon just happens to be walking by and ends up in the picture. That leads Levasseur to try convincing his cynical and suspicious wife Christine (Kristin Scott Thomas) that Pignon is Elena's lover and that Levasseur was the passerby. Indiscretion produces duplicity, and the two together require dramatic enactment for an audience of one.
As was unconvincingly true of Bruce Willis in Perfect Stranger, Levasseur is a fabulously rich and powerful corporate magnate whose wife holds controlling interest in all his business enterprises. This means Christine is just too expensive to divorce, a proposition less credible than essential to narrative flow. Levasseur hires Pignon to feign a relationship with Elena. They are to dine in public places and attend high profile events together. They are to hold hands while strolling in the park and nuzzle each other over coffee in sidewalk cafes and red wine in candle-lit restaurants. Most important, they are to take up cohabitation in Pignon's apartment. The comedy in all this proceeds from the fact that Elena is a dazzling cross between Christie Brinkley and Catherine Deneuve and Pignon can most optimistically be described as average looking. In fact, I suspect Veber chose Elmaleh for his everyman resemblance to Buster Keaton. Elena, meanwhile, is rich, famous, and at 5'10" about a head taller than her pretend lover. Pignon, in contrast, is slight, modest and not even middle class. He earns his living parking cars.
Pignon is, however (as is characteristic of his namesakes in other Veber confections), entirely decent. He agrees to help Levasseur without entirely understanding what the billionaire is up to. Pignon just wants to earn a few thousand Euros so he can help pay off the debts of Emilie (Virginie Ledoyen), the girl he yearns to marry. As it happens, Elena and Pignon get along quite nicely, their mutual fondness making the increasingly paranoid Levasseur concerned that a love affair is brewing between the two of them, a development that probably would take place in an American version of this story but one Veber adroitly eschews.
The Valet includes a low-wattage sidebar about a dotty doctor who makes house calls in order to complain to would-be patients about his own health problems and another about an Eddie Haskellish cell-phone salesman who hopes to spark a romance with Emilie. But the film's primary failing lies in its depiction of Levasseur, the one major character for whom it discovers no saving grace. As rendered here, Levasseur is no more physically attractive than Pignon, and his deceitful, manipulative, unreliable behavior is so appalling that we have no clue why Elena has been involved with him. (Of course, as I write this, I recall that Ellen Barkin married Ron Perelman, and I am reminded of the ugly power of fathomless wealth.)
In short, The Valet is slight and imperfect. But it is fun, too. Several scenes produce loud bursts of laughter. And the whole has an appealing warmth wafting from its egalitarian premise that, as Lennon and McCartney observed, "money can't buy me love."