[Screen It]

"THE CLOSET"
(2000) (Daniel Auteuil, Gérard Depardieu) (R)

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QUICK TAKE:
Subtitled Comedy: Opinions and attitudes change toward a boring and lonely accountant after he decides to pretend he's gay to save his job.
PLOT:
Francois Pignon (DANIEL AUTEUIL) is a forty-something accountant at a condom company who's just accidentally overheard that he's about to be fired. This seems to be the last straw for Francois who still hasn't recovered from his wife, Christine (ALEXANDRA VANDERNOOT), leaving him two years ago, or the fact that their 17-year-old son, Franck (STANISLAS CREVILLÉN), essentially wants little or nothing to do with him.

Contemplating jumping from his balcony, Francois is interrupted by his new neighbor Jeanne-Pierre Belone (MICHEL AUMONT), who assures him that things aren't that bad and that he'll figure out a way for Francois to save his job. His plan turns out to be superimposing Francois' head onto the photo of a gay couple, anonymously mailing it to his company, and then letting the politically correct chips fall where they may.

Not surprisingly, word of the photos spreads like wildfire through the company, not only saving Francois' job, but also having the big boss, Mr. Kopel (JEAN ROCHEFORT), telling everyone to lay off the gay jokes and treat Francois, who's straight but doesn't deny the rumors lest the ruse be discovered, with kid gloves.

While Francois' immediate boss, Ms. Bertrand (MICHÈLE LAROQUE), and coworker, Ariane (ARMELLE DEUTSCH), are both suspicious and surprised about this revelation, the firm's PR director, Guillaume (THIERRY LHERMITTE), decides to teach the company's resident homophobe, Félix Santini (GÉRARD DEPARDIEU), a lesson by stating that his job is in jeopardy if he doesn't become Francois' good friend.

As the reluctant worker does just that, Francois must contend with everyone else, including his estranged family, changing their opinions and attitudes toward him as he finds his new identity liberating and himself finally growing as a person.

OUR TAKE: 6.5 out of 10
In any bear market where penny pinching becomes something of an art form and a standard business evil, the first thing many companies do is fire people to improve the company's bottom line - as quickly as possible - through salary and related benefits reduction. Such slash and burn techniques may be good for the company and stockholders in the short term, but are usually bad for morale and long-term prospects, not to mention the sacked employees themselves.

Imagine then if you're such a worker who's so desperate to keep your job - to pay alimony -- that you agree to be perceived as if you're gay so that your bosses will be afraid to ax you for fear of being politically incorrect and/or potential wrongful termination lawsuits.

That's the underlying comic setup and premise of writer/director Francis Veber's near constantly amusing effort, "The Closet" ("Le Placard"). An entertaining look at how people will change their attitudes and behavior toward others based on perceptions that may not even be true, the film benefits from just the right, light comedic touch behind the camera and fine performances from the talented cast in front of it.

Of course, mistaken identity plots are as old as the hills (or at least that of ancient comedies and dramas), and the gay angle has been used in numerous plays, movies and TV shows over the years. In fact, "Three's Company" - the 1977-1984 TV series that was based on the British work "Man About the House" - used that as the basic gist of most of its episodes, while more recent programs, such as "Seinfeld," have used the being mistaken for gay plot as a catalyst for comedy, not that there's anything wrong with that.

While only occasionally reaching the vaulted status of being hilarious, the film is cute and amusing throughout, although it seems that Veber missed out on the opportunity for more laughs through an early plot decision.

The humor obviously stems from everyone reacting - for good or bad - to their thinking that the unassuming protagonist is gay, but that only provides for half of the complete comedic potential. It may have been more fun and funny had the protagonist - at least for a while -- not been privy to the gay ruse at hand or the doctored photos that serve as the perception changing catalyst.

Had that been the case, not only would we have laughed at his coworkers, boss and family's reaction to the "news," but also his confused and/or amused reaction and response to their suddenly changed behavior. Since much of the included humor is of the wry variety where that character never directly answers questions or inferences about his sexuality anyway, such a change in the plot would have been relatively easy to pull off and probably could have generated some big laughs if not just more comedic moments and potential.

Nevertheless, Veber - whose previous efforts as writer or director have been remade into American films such as 'Three Fugitives," "The Toy" and "The Birdcage" - keeps things light, lively and moving along at a good clip. That's even if most of the humor doesn't really build on itself or deliver anything resembling complex or highly imaginative or clever twists on the material.

As far as the performances are concerned, Daniel Auteuil ("The Widow of Saint-Pierre," "Girl on the Bridge") is perfect as the sad sack employee whose vocational and personal lives are in the dump. Although he's mostly relegated to playing the straight man - no pun intended - to the film's other characters and humor, Auteuil creates a character who's instantly likable even if he's purposefully dull.

Gérard Depardieu ("Vatel," Green Card") is okay as the company's macho homophobe who's scared into being nice to the protagonist in order to keep his job. That said, his one hundred and eighty degree transformation into a whimpering, compassionate man isn't entirely credible, even for a comedy such as this. In addition, the subplot of his wife becoming suspicious of his behavior and store purchases isn't as much clever or complex fun as it could or should have been.

Michèle Laroque ("My Life in Pink," "La crise") is good as Francois' immediate suspicious boss and Jean Rochefort ("Rembrandt," "Barracuda") gets some funny moments as the company's big boss. Other supporting performances from the likes of Stanislas Crevillén ("Mauvaise passe," "Un pont entre deux rives"), Michel Aumont ("Un Dimanche a la campagne," "Le jouet") and Thierry Lhermitte ("The Dinner Game," "An American Werewolf in Paris") are generally fine, if not particularly developed to any great degree.

While it's far from being the funniest comedy - French or not - that you'll ever see, and isn't quite as wickedly funny or complex as I would have liked to have seen, "The Closet" is charming and amusing enough to earn a passing grade of 6.5 out of 10.




Reviewed May 24, 2001 / Posted July 6, 2001


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