The Man Who Viewed Too Much
17 March 1997

Un air de famille

Directed by Cédric Klapisch
Written by Jean-Pierre Bacri & Agnès Jaoui & Cédric Klapisch
Adapted from the play Un air de famille by Jean-Pierre Bacri & Agnès Jaoui
Rating: *** ½

Private Parts

Directed by Betty Thomas
Written by Len Blum and Michael Kalisniko
Adapted from the book Private Parts by Howard Stern
Rating: ** ½

Ratings are on a four-star scale

One of the advantages of writing a column on the internet for no pay is that you're allowed to make up and/or change the rules as you go along. When I first began writing reviews, back in mid-1995, I chose to restrict myself to films being commercially distributed, even though I generally see a few dozen movies annually that could reasonably be categorized as "new releases"...movies that often disappear, for all intents and purposes, after being screened just one or two times at some festival or another. My reasoning at the time, and since, was that there's little point in spending time and energy writing about films that virtually nobody will have the opportunity to see. It was also, to be honest, a handy rationalization for reducing my workload. But I've changed my mind. Why? Because I just saw Cédric Klapisch's terrific new film Un air de famille, and I want to encourage those of you who might enjoy it as much as I did to keep an eye out for it. Plus, I have this quixotic notion that my enthusiastic praise might somehow help the film secure a distribution deal. (I might as well fantasize that Renée Zellweger will read the marriage proposal in my Jerry Maguire review and give me a call demanding that I set the date.) Mostly, though, it's because, Hey, if I want to start reviewing films without American distributors now and again, who's gonna stop me? Nobody, that's who. So there. I'm broke, but at least I'm autonomous.

Frankly, I'll be more than a little surprised if Un air de famille isn't picked up and released before year's end -- not because it's so darn good (quality didn't help Sixteen-Oh-Sixty or Up/Down/Fragile or I, the Worst of All find an audience), but because it's so traditionally entertaining. "Crowd-pleaser" has become something of a pejorative term lately, used by hardcore cinéastes to sneer at popular but allegedly frivolous titles ("yeah, I saw Il Postino -- typical crowd-pleaser, don't waste your time"), but the fact is that the crowd with which I saw Un air de famille was quite audibly pleased. To say that we were roaring with laughter, for example, would not be an exaggeration. The film is in no way challenging or innovative or groundbreaking, but what it is instead is something to be cherished in these days of pervasive sloppiness: it's well-crafted. Do I sound as if I'm damning it with faint praise? I hope not, because I intend that as a compliment of the highest order. Like the plays of Alan Ayckbourne (by which the original play was likely influenced -- I'm told the French are crazy for Ayckbourne), it's a well-oiled comedy machine in which every line of dialogue, every gesture, every apparently random event is a carefully-placed cog. This kind of fanatical orchestration can often be stifling, choking the life out of the tale (look at just about any recent Hollywood comedy), but when it works -- when the company can collectively create an illusion of spontaneity, even as the gears are turning -- the result is immensely satisfying. Even devotees of Godard and Cassavetes and Leigh sometimes get a kick out seeing the pieces fall into place.

As the title suggests (I can't recall now what the subtitled English translation was -- I suspect that it's essentially untranslatable), the film is primarily concerned with family. Every other Friday, Henri (co-author Jean-Pierre Bacri), who owns and operates the tavern previously run by his deceased father (played in brief flashbacks by director Klapisch, who's hairier than Robin Williams and Albert Brooks combined), hosts his mother (Claire Maurier) and his two siblings -- hotshot exec brother Philippe (Wladimir Yordanoff) and irascible sister Betty (co-author Agnès Jaoui), who works for Philippe's company -- for dinner. Also included in these get-togethers is Philippe's rather high-strung wife, Yolande (Catherine Frot), known "affectionately" as Yo-Yo; observing from a distance is Henri's employee Denis (Jean-Pierre Darroussin), who, unbeknownst to the rest of the family, is romantically involved with Betty. On this particular Friday, the family has gathered to celebrate Yo-Yo's birthday, meeting at Henri's place for a quick drink before heading to a posh restaurant for the festivity proper. The evening's agenda is thrown into disarray, however, when Henri's wife, whose name I don't recall (she never appears onscreen), phones to inform Henri that she's leaving him. This news, which Henri abjectly fails to conceal from the others, inspires a series of recriminations, accusations, and mean-spirited barbs, which alternate between hilarity and genuine pathos.

Most of the comic situations in Un air de famille are variations on tried-and-true scenarios, but that doesn't make them any less effective. Henri struggles to say something coherent about Philippe's poise during a TV interview earlier in the day without revealing that he completely forgot to watch it, even after having been reminded by Mom an hour before airtime. Yo-Yo pretends not to be horrified by her birthday gift from her mother-in-law: a dog that happens to be the same breed as Henri's dog, who is lying paralyzed and forlorn in the other room. ("They all end up like that," Yolande is serenely assured.) Betty tells Denis that their relationship is over, and he's forced to work covertly to win her back (since the others aren't supposed to know of their involvement). And suchlike and soforth. Nothing you haven't seen before, but written and performed with such verve and style that it almost seems fresh and new and exciting. The movie's cast worked together in the stage production for over a year, and it shows: the ensemble is stunning (Darroussin and Frot won Césars [the French Oscar] for their work, and Jaoui was nominated as well), bouncing off of one another with a skill that looks deceptively easy but is undoubtedly the result of months of refinement and polishing. It's depressing to consider that, had this been a Hollywood adaptation of a hit Broadway play, the original cast would certainly have been replaced by more "marketable" stars, à la Frankie and Johnny and Marvin's Room (to name just two examples from a possible 2000).

If you're like me, few onscreen words inspire more apprehension than "adapted from the play by" (maybe "directed by Tony Scott"), but Klapisch -- whose other features, I'm told, are nothing like this one (I'll be seeing his When the Cat's Away later this week, as it happens) -- has pulled off one of the strongest stage-to-screen transitions I've ever seen, and without resorting to empty flashiness or unnecessary padding. The play has been "opened up" only by the addition of the aforementioned flashback scenes (which together comprise maybe two minutes of screen time, if that -- they have no dialogue) and a handful of exterior shots, including one hilarious scene in which Henri journeys to the apartment complex of the friend with whom his wife is staying to beg her to come down and talk to him. The vast majority of Un air de famille consists entirely of six people wandering around a single set, and yet the film never feels claustrophobic or stagy. In fact, I somehow missed the information that it had been adapted from a play during the opening credits (which are in French and fairly whiz by), and almost an hour passed before I consciously noticed that all of the action had been restricted to Henri's tavern, and it occurred to me to wonder whether it had previously been a stage production. Klapisch's use of lighting to control the film's emotional tenor is extraordinarily subtle and assured, and he has a lot of fun distorting Philippe's face: shooting him through wine glasses, in mirrors (one shot is so surreal that I thought it at first to be a split-screen effect), etc. He knows his way around a close-up, too, and his decision to shoot the film in anamorphic widescreen was inspired -- we usually associate the 1:2.35 ratio with expansive vistas and thousands of ill-paid extras shivering in period costume, but Klapisch uses it to highlight the characters' isolation (and, as he admitted in the post-screening Q&A, to get all six of them in the frame at the same time). It's a masterful job, on a par with Richard Loncraine's version of Richard III and Fred Schepisi's inspired work in the film of John Guare's Six Degrees of Separation.

I do wish that Bacri and Jaoui had wrapped things up just a bit less tidily; there's a phone call in the final scene that I definitely could have lived without, for example, and I think there was room for more ambiguity in other areas as well. On the whole, though, it's the most thoroughly entertaining picture I've seen so far this year (since I technically saw the forthcoming Irma Vep last year). Let's hope you get a chance to find out whether you agree; if nobody picks up this one, then the future of foreign-language cinema distribution in this country looks even bleaker than I'd imagined.

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Another advantage of writing a column on the internet for no pay is that you don't have to see any movies that you wouldn't choose to see voluntarily -- there's no editor demanding, for example, that I weigh in on Jungle 2 Jungle by Monday next, so I'm free to ignore it as strenuously as a critic as I would as a "civilian" filmgoer (which is strenuously indeed -- in fact, I'm endeavoring to forget its existence even as I type this sentence). Private Parts, Howard Stern's cinematic début, was another film I was planning to be the first in line to avoid, since I'm no fan of the man himself; imagine my consternation, therefore, when the advance reviews began to appear, and the pros proclaimed it an unexpected delight. Skeptical but terrifically curious, I dashed that very afternoon to a theater near me, and emerged two hours later utterly nonplussed. I don't regret having seen it, by any means, but I don't really understand what all the fuss is about, either -- it's a fairly typical Hollywood comedy, with scattered funny moments amid a great deal of adolescent pandering. True, it's not at all the movie I would have expected from Stern, but a little warmth and a structure borrowed from Annie Hall do not a modern classic make. Let's get a grip, here.

Private Parts chronicles Stern's life from childhood to adult fame and fortune, with Stern playing himself beginning at about age 18. (To his credit, or that of the film's writers, the fortysomething Stern advises us in voiceover to suspend disbelief when we first see him as a "teenager.") He's a relaxed, confident performer -- gesundheit -- and those of you who just sneezed at that revelation should be ashamed of yourselves. Courtney Love's excellent work in The People vs. Larry Flynt was dismissed in some quarters on the grounds that she was "just playing herself," so I can imagine that many of you will be unimpressed when I say that Howard Stern makes a fine Howard Stern; all I can say is: If you think it's easy to play yourself convincingly on-camera, try it sometime. Of course, the "Stern" we see here is a calculated invention, far more likable and less inflammatory than his radio persona, and clearly designed for maximum crossover appeal. But those who charge that the film is a Flynt-like whitewash are wasting their breath. Private Parts is a cartoon from the get-go, bearing no resemblance to life as we know it; you might as well complain that Bill & Ted's Excellent Adventure misrepresents Napoléon and Socrates.

Stern has never shied away from jokes at his own expense, which to some extent compensates for his overwhelming self-absorption and egotism. The funniest scenes in the film are those which depict the young, struggling Stern as a ridiculous nebbish, buried underneath an intensely unflattering '70s perm, speaking on the air in a nervous, strangled voice approximately two octaves higher than the pointed baritone that has made him a millionaire many times over. The latter half of the film, however, which is devoted to Stern's battles with his superiors at WNBC (chiefly a composite character known as Pig Vomit, played too broadly for my taste by Paul Giamatti) is less engaging and more familiar; the proposed sequel to Good Morning, Vietnam, depicting the further adventures of renegade disc jockey Adrian Cronauer in Chicago, never materialized, but this will do just fine as a substitute. Private Parts is further hampered -- and this I did anticipate -- by an adolescent obsession with sexuality and scatology: e.g., Howard sees an attractive woman walk by, imagines her without her clothes on, imagines her breasts doubling in size (oh boy, a new morphing concept), etc. This kind of humor didn't appeal to me even when I was an adolescent, and nowadays I just find it depressing. If the idea of a MatchGame parody in which Howard supplies his panel with phrases like "[blank]willow" and "[blank]-a-doodle-doo" strikes you as hilarious, disregard this review and get in line immediately, assuming that you haven't seen the movie several times already.

Stern has described the movie as a love letter to his very patient wife, Alison, and the critics have been falling over one another to affirm that it's tender and romantic and touching, which is a crock. It tries to be all of those things, and Movie Howard is certainly devoted to his Movie Wife and Movie Children (and may well be devoted to the genuine articles in real life), but if you were making a motion picture as a romantic gesture to your spouse, and were featuring your spouse as a major character in said motion picture, don't you think you might give your spouse, oh, a personality? Poor Mary McCormack, the very patient actress playing Alison, gets to stand around with a vaguely concerned expression and listen to Howard deliver dopey lines like "I have to go all the way!" (Believe it or not, that declaration is not played for laughs.) "You do what you have to do, Howard," she replies supportively, or equally tedious words to that effect. I've heard Alison on Howard's show. She's more interesting than he is. She got gypped.

Next week (in all likelihood): Crash, Gray's Anatomy