Despite being nearly 70 years old, Francis Veber might be the signature film director for the incoming administration of new French President Nicholas Sarkozy. Some of his countrymen disdain Sarkozy for being "pro-American," while Veber specializes in broad comedies that resemble Hollywood product and frequently see U.S. remakes, such as The Toy.
In Veber's new film, The Valet, supermodel Elena (Alice Taglioni) turning heads while snippets of "Pretty Woman's" guitar riff play evokes the Julia Roberts film with all the subtlety of a diet-yogurt commercial. Fortunately, such thudding moments prove more the exception than the rule in the unadventurous but modestly appealing farce.
The title The Valet may evoke master-and-servant hijinks like Jeeves and Wooster, but the title character, likable loser Francois (Gad Elmaleh), works as a parking valet. Through a predictably preposterous chain of events, Francois finds himself enlisted to be the public boyfriend of Elena when her actual lover, a married zillionaire businessman (eye-popping Daniel Auteuil), wants to allay the suspicions of his wife (The English Patient's lovely, classy Kristin Scott Thomas).
The Valet features some of the requisite contrivances of farce, including stalkerazzi from both the CEO and his wife. Rather than exploit the leer factor in the premise, Veber treats the characters with surprising tenderness. The world begins to perceive Francois as a ladies' man when he appears in public with Elena on his arm, but in private he longs for his unrequited girlfriend and takes no pleasure from the ruse. Though he and Elena strike up an unlikely friendship, he compares the relationship to being a valet, only he temporarily possesses someone else's girlfriend instead of their luxury car.
The cast redeems The Valet's sillier notions, and Elmaleh and Taglioni sweetly capture a friendship that's warm without being hot – although Elena seems suspiciously casual and free of self-consciousness for a celebrity model. Elmaleh, who at times resembles a Valley Girl-era Nicolas Cage, brings some intensity to the put-upon nice-guy role, while Auteuil once again shows a remarkable ability to shift gears between sober, cerebral dramas such as Caché to broad comedies such as this.
The Valet offers little that would be out of place in an American sitcom, but shouldn't be casually dismissed. Perhaps Veber can broker a peaceful accord between filmmakers on both sides of the Atlantic, so the French don't continue to drive off with English-language talents such as Kristin Scott Thomas.
The Valet. 3 stars. Directed by Francis Veber. Stars Gad Elmaleh, Alice Taglioni. Not Rated. Opens Fri., May. 25. At United Artists Tara Cinemas. In French with English subtitles.