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L’Emmerdeur (2008)

WARNING: AS MANY SPOILERS AS FRANCOIS PIGNONS

As you watch “L’emmerdeur” (“A Pain in the Ass”), the latest comedy from Francis Veber, and as you’re enjoying the typical Veberian patterns—the comedic clash between an emotional, obtuse man (the feminine), and a tough, professional and slightly dangerous man (the masculine)—you realize, after about 45 minutes, that most of the action is taking place in two adjoining hotel rooms. And you think, “Hell, this could’ve been a play. How odd that Veber wrote such a play-like film so late in his career.”

At least that’s what you think if, like me, you really don’t know Veber. Afterwards I learned that “L’emmerdeur” is a remake of a 1973 film of the same name, which was based upon Veber’s 1969 play, “Le contrat,” which was also the basis for Billy Wilder’s last film, “Buddy Buddy,” in 1981. It’s been told a lot, in other words. Is it worth revisiting?

The set-up still works. A hitman, Jean Milan (Richard Berry), attempting to kill a high-level witness, takes an adjoining hotel room with a man, Francois Pignon (Patrick Tims), trying to kill himself. And the incompetence of the latter disrupts the super-competence of the former.

Pignon’s wife has left him for her shrink and he’s a puddle. He calls her, declares his suicidal intentions, then tries hanging himself from the bathroom shower. It breaks, alerting the hotel clerk in Milan’s room, who wants to call the police. Since the last thing Milan needs is cops flying around while he’s trying to assassinate someone in the plaza below, he takes responsibility and shoos the clerk away. But now he’s responsible. The cops would’ve been easy in comparison.

Tims is the 8th actor to play Pignon, the nom de choix for the feminine half of Veber’s buddy comedies. Others include Gad Elmelah in “La doublure” (2006), Daniel Auteuil in “Le placard” (2001) and Jacques Villeret in “Le diner de cons” (1998). But the most famous and probably the best to take on Pignon was Pierre Richard in two Veber comedies with Gerard Depardieu in the 1980s: “Les comperes” (remade as “Father’s Day” in the U.S., with Robin Williams in the Pignon role) and “Les fugitifs” (remade as “Three Fugitives” in the U.S., with Martin Short in the Pignon role). You could add “Le chevre” (1981) to the mix, too. Veber wrote and directed it, Depardieu starred as the tough guy, and Richard played the hapless half named Francois...Perrin. Basically the same deal.

Not to be mean but Tims made me long for Richard. Pignon is such a bothersome character that one invariably roots for the other guy, even if, as here, the other guy’s a professional killer. Because at least he’s a professional. But Richard had a dreamy quality that made his Pignon palatable. There was something crisp and determined about his dreaminess, too. He may have been wrong, but he was only wrong because the world is wrong. You need Depardieu’s headbutting ways to get by, and Richard’s Pignon only half-understood this. In a way he seemed determined not to understand this. He preferred his brand of idiocy to the world’s.

The Pignon of “Le diner de cons” worked in a different way. In that film, which was the highest-grossing film in France in 1998, the set-up was so horrible—a group of successful, professional men inviting the biggest idiot they could to a dinner, at which a champion idiot would be crowned, with Pierre Brochant, of course, choosing Pignon—that we had no sympathy at all for Brochant, and in fact cheered on Pignon as his genial idiocy slowly ruined Brochant’s life. Brochant asked for what he got. He invited it in.

Tims’ Pignon is not dreamy and he’s not genial, and the hitman Jean Milan never invited him in. Plus the notion that this schlumpy Pignon was ever the husband of the gazelle-like Louise (Virginie Ledoyen, 16 years Tims’ junior) seems too absurd even for comedy. I could see her marrying Richard and his brand of dreaminess. But what does Tims bring? What’s his redeeming factor? Does he have one? That’s one of the main problems with the film.

A side-note. Could the Veberian dynamic (the masculine-feminine “buddy” film) work with an actual female in the Pignon role? I doubt it. It would disrupt the comedic dilemma. I.e.: What does a professional tough guy do when forced into partnership with an emotional puddle who is not a woman? You turn the character into a woman and you sacrifice comedy for romance.

There’s a phrase I use a lot as an editor, and I first thought of it while watching the final scene of Clint Eastwood’s “Million Dollar Baby”: a soft landing. It’s a shot that brings us back to earth with nary a bump and yet is so resonant that it glides us along even as the credits roll. It’s a beautiful thing when done right and Veber’s the master. Even his disappointing films, such as “Le chevre,” give us soft landings, and “L’emmerdeur” is no different. The cops, finally alerted to trouble, shoot a tear-gas canister into Milan’s room. On the bed, Pignon, stronger now, taking charge now, puts his arm around the undone professional killer and assures him that, even in prison, he will always stick by him and never abandon him. He says this as clouds of puffy gas fill the room, slowly enveloping the two men. And in that shot we finally get the dreaminess we needed all along.

—June 14, 2009

© 2009 Erik Lundegaard