How you feel about Francis Veber’s (The Closet) The Valet is going to largely depend on how you feel about soufflé-light French farce. Even for Veber—hardly the weightiest of filmmakers—The Valet is little more than a bonbon. The undercurrents of something larger that permeate The Closet (2001) are nowhere to be found in this confection.
That’s not a criticism per se, because The Valet is a very pleasant trifle in its own right. What it lacks in meaty subtext is made up for in Veber’s usual sense of humanity—not to mention his skill at fashioning witty, stylish farces of a kind that are largely absent from cinema in recent times. OK, so maybe he’s not Ernst Lubitsch (sometimes even Ernst Lubitsch wasn’t Ernst Lubitsch), but he may well be the last exponent of that particular brand of civilized romantic comedy. While I’m hardly a supporter of the “they don’t make ‘em like they used to” mindset (great movies are almost always the result of filmmakers deliberately not “making ‘em like they used to”), I do think there’s room for a taste of classically styled moviemaking now and then. And when it’s as unpretentious and unassuming as M. Veber’s brisk 82-minute outing here, I can’t imagine anyone objecting too strenuously.
Veber’s setup is purest farce comedy. Billionaire businessman Pierre Levasseur (Daniel Auteuil) has the misfortune of being photographed with his mistress, supermodel Elena Simonsen (Alice Taglioni, The Pink Panther), putting him in bad with his wife, Christine (Kristin Scott Thomas). However, fate intervenes in the guise of parking valet François Pignon (Gad Elmaleh), who happens to be in the same photo. So Levasseur and his magnificently amoral lawyer (Richard Berry, Tais-toi!) conspire to have François pretend to be Elena’s boyfriend in order to “prove” that Levasseur was but an innocent bystander in all this.
François is a somewhat improbable innocent (at first he wants to know how much they expect him to pay them to live with a supermodel), who only wants enough money out of the deal to pay of his quasi-girlfriend Emilie’s (Virginie Ledoyen, Bon Voyage) debts on her bookstore. In his mind, this will move him from being thought of “like a brother” to a true romantic contender in Emilie’s mind. What happens from here is utterly predictable, but it’s predictability of the finest kind. Sure, it subscribes to the Oscar Wilde definition of fiction—“The good ended happily, and the bad unhappily. That is what fiction means”—but that’s the function of a film of this kind.
What makes it work is Veber’s sense of timing and the fact that even the most unlikable characters are capable of charm and a degree of recognizable humanity. Levasseur is hardly the most likable of people (come on, the man’s a billionaire), but his actions are not only understandable, they’re sufficiently screwy that he’s almost sympathetic. Plus, he may employ a snake of a lawyer as his right-hand man, but he’s smart enough to know the guy is more serpent than friend. (When said lawyer asks if he can speak to Levasseur “as a friend,” Levasseur quickly tells him “no.”) At the same time, the lawyer—awful as he is—remains more amusing than nasty. And even when Levasseur gets his inevitable comeuppance, it’s a pretty lightweight one, in keeping with the ultimate triviality of his villainy. The most likable character, naturally, is François—and that’s as it should be. He’s the innocent who will come through simply by being a nice guy.
Veber fills the film with engagingly quirky characters and bright gags—punctuated by small outbursts of slapstick that never threaten to overbalance the proceedings—that keep it floating along with such assurance that it constantly charms. Sometimes that’s enough. Rated PG-13 for sexual content and language.