“I live in America, but I make comedies the French way,” says Francis Veber. His extensive filmography, however, offers little justification for the French-born writer-director’s pride. True, his formulaic, tired-businessman comedies have been successful in his homeland, but Hollywood’s remakes of his screenplays constitute a roll call of flops: Buddy Buddy, The Toy, My Father the Hero, and Fathers’ Day. Recently, Veber reprocessed his first stage play, the wheezy, sitcomish Le Diner de Cons, into a French movie (released here last year as The Dinner Game), and he’s currently putting the finishing touches on an American screen version starring Kevin Kline, titled Dinner for Schmucks.
The best and worst of Veber’s efforts feature gay themes. He co-authored the screenplay of La Cage aux Folles, the 1978 international hit that spawned two film sequels, a Broadway musical, and Mike Nichols’ The Birdcage. Veber took sole credit (or should I say blame?) for writing Partners (1982), a mirthlessly offensive critical and commercial disaster in which hetero cop Ryan O’Neal feigns homosexuality to investigate a gay murder. Nearly two decades later, Veber resurrects this straight-posing-as-gay gambit in The Closet.
Daniel Auteuil stars as François Pignon, a boring accountant at the end of his tether. Dumped by his wife, Christine (Alexandra Vandernoot), and mocked by his teenage son, Franck (Stanislas Crevillén), he’s about to be pink-slipped from his condom-factory job. As advised by his neighbor Belone (Michel Aumont), a homosexual retired corporate psychologist, Pignon attempts to retain his position by pretending to be gay, thereby intimidating his bosses with the implicit threat of a discrimination suit. Overnight, this hitherto anonymous dullard is suddenly perceived by his co-workers as an interesting man. The masquerade not only succeeds in achieving its goal but also wins Pignon a new flame, saucy Mademoiselle Bertrand (Michèle Laroque), and earns him the respect of his son.
Veber has engaged a stellar cast but, besides Auteuil and Aumont, few of the actors are given a real opportunity to shine in this plot-heavy film, which runs just 85 minutes. Jean Rochefort, as a corporate director, and Gérard Depardieu, as Pignon’s homophobic co-worker, are wasted in minor roles unworthy of their talents. Apart from a few bright momentsnotably the scene in which Pignon is forced to appear on a gay-pride parade float with a giant condom perched like a dunce cap on his headVeber’s jokes are as bland and predictable as his protagonist.
Although The Closet appears to espouse gay concerns, it, like Veber’s other films, thoughtlessly perpetuates homosexual stereotypes. La Cage aux Folles reinforced the conventional wisdom that, in gay male relationships, one partner plays a passive “female” role. Partners, like Showtime’s cheesily entertaining Queer as Folk series, assumed that homosexuals’ brains are inextricably hot-wired to their genitals.
Despite its amiability, The Closet is arguably even more insidious. Its only openly gay character is the celibate, geriatric Belone, who long ago abandoned sex and now focuses his emotional energies on a wandering kitten. Pignon, of course, merely passes for gay. In the process of dealing with his homophobia, Félix, the Depardieu character, gradually finds himself drawn to Pignon, taking him to lunch and buying him an expensive sweater. Félix’s reward for this liberation is confinement to a mental hospital.
In Mary McCarthy’s autobiographical short story “Ghostly Father, I Confess,” a middle-class-young-woman-turned-bohemian-radical visits a psychiatrist to sort out the pieces of her fragmented psyche. She bitterly recalls an incident in which her seemingly open-minded father exposed his contempt for the Irish Catholic boys whom she dated in high school, and then betrays her own prejudices. “It would have been pleasanter, of course,” she muses, “if the Negroes were not colored, and the Jews were not Jewish.” I couldn’t help thinking of her while watching The Closet, a cravenly pleasant movie whose homosexual characters are not gay.
Writer-director Amos Kollek’s Fast Food Fast Women is a mess, but I found its bungling amateurism preferable to The Closet’s machine-tooled, risk-free calculation. The son of Teddy Kollek, former mayor of Jerusalem, the writer-director has been making films in this country for nearly two decades. Most of his movies, however, have been denied theatrical distribution and have premiered on cable television. Even though they feature such high-profile actors as Alec Baldwin, Kathy Bates, and Faye Dunaway, their titles will be familiar only to the most obsessive cinephiles: Forever, Lulu, High Stakes, Double Edge, Whore 2, Sue, and Fiona. His latest effort, a romantic comedy set in lower Manhattan, is unlikely to alter his obscurity.
Fast Food Fast Women is an ensemble piece involving the patrons of a New York diner. Free-spirited waitress Bella (Anna Thomson, who starred in Kollek’s last two features) faces her 35th birthday without a mate. Her longtime married lover, nerdy theater director George (Austin Pendleton), fails to make good on his promise to leave his wife, so Bella begins an affair with Bruno (Jamie Harris, son of actor Richard), a divorced English would-be writer who drives a cab to support his two children. Meanwhile, widower Paul (Robert Modica), one of Bella’s customers, responds to a personal ad placed by Emily (Louise Lasser), a lonely, insecure widow. Although drawn to her, Paul fears that he’s too old to sustain a passionate relationship. The eccentric secondary characters include Paul’s crony Seymour (Victor Argo), who becomes infatuated with Wanda (Valerie Geffner), a Jungian analyst moonlighting as a peep-show stripper, and Vitka (Angelica Torn, daughter of actor Rip and Geraldine Page), a Polish hooker with a speech impediment.
Kollek’s jumbled screenplay resembles the result of a session of Exquisite Corpse, the game invented by surrealists in which one player contributes to a narrative without knowing what the previous participant has written. We’re offered no clue as to why Bella has squandered a decade of her life on creepy, unsightly George. She’s savagely beaten while defending an old lady from muggers, then appears inexplicably unmarred in the following scene. Audience credulity evaporates long before Bella is summoned by lawyers and informed that she’s been left $9 million by a stranger. After which, naturally, she continues to sling hash at the diner.
Fast Food Fast Womenthe title refers to an upscale restaurant featuring waitresses on roller skatesinterweaves fairy-tale whimsy and therapeutic bromides about the hunger for, and fear of, emotional commitment. Although indifferently photographed and sloppily edited, it intermittently exudes a dimwitted charm, thanks to Kollek’s affection for his characters and the contributions of some of his performers. Thomson’s offbeat beauty makes her intriguing to watch despite the incoherent character she’s been assigned. (In a peculiar touch, Bella’s mother complains that her daughter lacks voluptuousnessan observation contradicted by the otherwise dancer-slim actress’s bursting cleavage and puffy lips, which would make Angelina Jolie weep with envy.) Modica, a veteran Manhattan stage actor, provides some affecting moments as timid Paul. But scrawny, charisma-challenged Harris is an unlikely romantic lead, and Lasser’s nervous tics and anxious smiles seem left over from the breakdown she suffered as the beleaguered title character in the subversive late-’70s television soap-opera parody Mary Hartman, Mary Hartman.
Apart from a few interesting performances, all that distinguishes Fast Food Fast Women from other current films is its peculiarity. But with so many lousy features clogging American screens, it’s difficult to get too incensed about a movie in which a theater director enthuses about his forthcoming musical adaptation of Godzilla, let alone one that begins with its heroine lying down in the middle of a crowded street to “put some excitement into my Sunday morning.” CP