Judge Ben Saylor hates driving but knows a good parking job when he sees one.
Baby, he can park your car.
Francis Veber (The Dinner Game) delivers a feather-light work with The Valet, a sporadically amusing farce that mostly squanders an excellent cast with a so-so script that lacks much of Veber's trademark humor.
Facts of the Case
Pierre (Daniel Auteuil, Caché) is a billionaire carrying on an affair with supermodel Elena (Alice Taglioni). However, when a paparazzo snaps the two together, Pierre needs to explain away the photo so his suspicious wife Christine (Kristin Scott Thomas The English Patient) doesn't divorce him, taking 60 percent of his holdings. Pierre's lawyer, Foix (Richard Berry), notices another man in the photo, a lovelorn valet named François Pignon (Gad Elmaleh). Pierre and Foix convince Pignon and Elena (via bribes) to live together and pretend to be a couple. The cagey Christine hires a private detective to snoop on the pair, while the increasingly jealous Pierre also has the couple watched. In addition, Pignon tries to woo pretty bookstore owner Emilie (Virginie Ledoyen, The Beach).
On paper, The Valet seems like a classic Veber farce, featuring his lovable goof François Pignon (the character name turns up in other Veber films), a colorful cast of leading men and ladies, and increasingly escalating comic situations. However, when put into practice, it doesn't quite jell together.
This paragraph contains what is arguably a mild spoiler. One of the things that feels off about The Valet is the plotting; some of Veber's decisions just didn't sit right with me. My problems in this area crop up mainly toward the end, which feels choppy and rushed. Veber completely omits an important conversation between Elena and Emilie that leads Emilie to take Pignon back. Given Emilie's initial level of ambivalence toward Pignon at the beginning of the film, I would love to have heard what Elena told her that would make her fall in love with him all of a sudden.
Another problem is that The Valet is just not as funny as Veber's other works. Both of the other Veber films I've seen, The Dinner Game and The Closet, are much funnier than this. I think part of the reason for this is that The Valet never really capitalizes on its basic premise (which is also weaker than that of the other two films) like The Dinner Game and The Closet do. Each of those films heaps predicament upon predicament on the characters, with the story becoming more outlandish (and, most importantly, entertaining) every minute. In The Valet, things look like they might build this way initially, but they never do. Christine hires a private eye and plays a prank on the "couple," but beyond that is largely absent from the proceedings. Her character could have done a lot more to turn up the heat on Elena and Pignon, which, in turn, would have allowed more opportunity for Pierre to become jealous of the pair.
Finally, there isn't much substance to The Valet, when it comes down to it. By "substance" I'm not talking about Kubrick-level significance, but at least The Dinner Game makes you really feel for the Pignon character, and The Closet, in addition to being a good farce, also works well as a satire on modern attitudes regarding homosexuality. The Valet, however, never really makes you feel for any particular character, nor does it have any satirical value. The issue of the credulity (or lack thereof) of a celebrity living with an average Joe is given the short shrift, although that idea was already given a solid treatment in Roger Michell's Notting Hill anyway. Of the three Veber films I've seen, The Valet is the one that most feels as if it could have been an episode of a TV show.
None of this is to say that The Valet is entirely without its charms, however. The cast is uniformly excellent. Auteuil, who was so good as the Pignon character in The Closet, plays an entirely different role here—that of a tyrannical, selfish boss—and pulls it off brilliantly. His face contorts admirably to convey Pierre's feelings of jealousy, frustration, and rage. He's a lot of fun to watch, and I wish he had been in it more. The same goes for Thomas, who is an excellent actress who I wish I saw more often in movies. Her Christine is devious and cool; she had the potential to be a very amusing character had Veber given her more to do. Of the three Pignons I've seen, Elmaleh is the least interesting, but he still turns in a solid comedic performance. Taglioni is charming as the beautiful Elena; her lopsided smile is disarming and makes her character surprisingly down-to-earth. Ledoyen plays (or was directed to play) Emilie in far too mercurial a fashion. Her character almost never seems to be in a good mood, which grows old after a while, even when she has good reason to be upset (like when she goes on a disastrous lunch with an annoying cell-phone salesman). My main problem with her, however, was described in the mild spoiler paragraph above. Dany Boon is funny as Pignon's pouty roommate Richard, and fans of The Dinner Game will spot Michel Aumont in a small but funny role as the doctor of Pignon's father. There is also a little Dinner Game in-joke towards the end of the movie.
The Valet is presented in a solid transfer that renders the film's sitcom look well. The sound quality is good, too, although some of the effects in the film itself draw attention to themselves by being unrealistically loud. For special features, there is a commentary with Veber and a making-of featurette. There are a fair amount of gaps in the track (which Veber does in English), and he sometimes talks about things that will pop up on the making-of featurette. He discusses his actors, his crew, and the difference between making a movie in France and in making one in America, among other topics. He even relates a story about a homeless person who committed suicide on location during the shoot. We also learn that Boon will be Veber's next Pignon, and that the Farrelly Brothers are developing an American remake of The Valet (The Toy, Three Fugitives, and Father's Day are some examples of Americanized Veber films). Overall, while the commentary isn't bad, the making-of featurette is more interesting. Clocking in at 45 minutes, it features interviews with Veber and his cast as well as copious amounts of behind-the-scenes footage. It's very interesting to watch Veber direct his actors, which for me is the reason to watch this featurette.
Despite a terrific and talented cast, The Valet is not Veber at his best. The weak central premise is never taken as far as it could be, and overall the film represents something of a missed opportunity for this talented filmmaker.
The cast is free to go, but Veber is sentenced to valet work until he writes a funnier movie.
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Scales of Justice
• Commentary with Writer/Director Francis Veber
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