We always seem to lose something in translation when we get French comedies in this country—even when they’re not translated.
Humor is ephemeral; it’s impossible to say exactly why something that’s apparently quite funny to the French is just plain dumb in the States. It’s got everything to do with our cultural upbringing, of course, but there’s also a part of us that reflexively equates humor with sophistication. Therefore, most Americans do one of two things: They snicker at the French for thinking Jerry Lewis and Asterix are funny, or they embrace the French for their cosmopolitan charm, figuring they know better.
It’s more fun to snicker. Remember, this is a country where Gérard Depardieu, the man with the fleshiest head this side of Circle Four Farms, is considered an epitome of masculine virility. They clearly don’t know comedy when its enormous noggin is right under their noses—and you won’t be laughing at The Closet, a farce that starts with a weak concept and refuses to make us laugh.
Francois Pignon (Daniel Auteuil of The Horseman on the Roof) is about to be shitcanned from his job as an accountant at a condom factory. Nobody will miss him; he’s a cipher, a timid shuffler with no discernible personality. He inspires pity and contempt in his fellow rubber-makers. His wife divorced him, and his son can’t stand him.
Pignon is glum, until his elderly neighbor suggests a way to spice up his image and keep his job: He should “accidentally” “out” himself to his co-workers as a “homosexual” who’s using his drab exterior to cover up a wild lifestyle. They put the plan into action by manipulating a photo and planting gossip at the office. Now, the company won’t dare to fire him and risk a scandal or a consumer boycott.
Suddenly, Pignon is the talk of the jimmy-hat house; his job is safe, but his eunuch status is in danger. In a subplot that might piss off real gay people as much as Chasing Amy did, his female boss now wants to seduce him, while the rest of the office reacts with varying degrees of curiosity to Pignon’s brand new bag.
But the film simply falls apart on its central conceit. The idea of somebody pretending to be gay must be infinitely wackier in the original French, because over here, it just isn’t that funny.
Gay, straight, bi, celibate—for many people, it’s all public-relations theory at this point. Michael Stipe tells everyone he’s none of the above because he doesn’t like labels, while Anne Heche switches teams like she’s the extra player in a street basketball game. I knew girls who spent their entire college years pretending to be gay just so certain guys wouldn’t try to date them; if their jobs at the condom factory were on the line, there’s no reason they wouldn’t go much further than Pignon.
Auteuil has an introverted role, with very little to do but react to the strange people around him. The most elaborate subplot involves Santini (Depardieu), an extra-masculine co-worker who begins paying Pignon a lot of attention. But the film’s problems lie both in the concept and the comedy. It’s just not funny enough to make us laugh, or clever enough to make us think.
The film never attacks or even toys with its most obvious potential targets: the politically correct, monolithic corporate culture that makes Pignon’s scheme viable in the first place. The Closet simply concentrates on a cute little story about a boring little guy, leaving us as disconnected as the film’s American distributors.
Director Francis Veber co-wrote La Cage Aux Folles, the semi-funny story about a gay couple trying to act straight for their son’s sake. Here, that concept is turned around, but the mirror image has even fewer laughs than the overrated original. There aren’t a lot of jokes in The Closet; it’s more of a mood piece, with the laughs expected to arise from the inherent silliness of everything going on. It’s a miscalculation by Veber, who clearly overestimates the comedic value of a nerdy guy sitting on a gay pride float wearing a crown.
The Closet is not a horrible, misbegotten film. It’s simply a misfire, a comedic concept that obviously plays well on the other side of the pond. For those of us who have seen Three’s Company, it’s a bit old. Perhaps if Billy Wilder could be drawn out of retirement to direct the American remake—which seems all but inevitable, given its excellent European box office numbers and the lineage of The Birdcage and Just Visiting—we might get a film willing to step beyond the sitcom boundaries and tedious characters set up by Veber. Until then, shut the door and lock it.
The Closet (R) H1/2 Directed by Francis Veber. Starring Daniel Auteuil, Gerard Depardieu, Thierry Lhermitte