Respected helmer Patrice Leconte goes for an old-fashioned, knee-slapping good time with “The Grand Dukes,” a fast-paced tale of a two-bit theatrical farce touring the French provinces. Although three veteran actors, Jean-Pierre Marielle, Philippe Noiret and Jean Rochefort, play the three veteran hams of the stage show, they fail to save this screen comedy from the curse of trying much too hard for a laugh. Pleasant if somewhat forced entertainment, pic should fare well on Eurotube and on family cable.
Auds more accustomed to Leconte’s finely observed pics such as “Tandem,””M. Hire” and “The Hairdresser’s Husband” may ask themselves why he has chosen here to abandon all pretense to subtlety. The entire cast seems to have been directed to mug for the camera. This works well for Catherine Jacob, a comedian with a proven knack for playing overwrought and overweight prima donnas, but proves far less felicitous for Michel Blanc, whose character Shapiron, a homicidal producer , must have been far funnier on paper. Marielle, Noiret and Rochefort fall somewhere between these two extremes.
Pic follows the eventful tour of “Scoubidou,” a boulevard farce that takes to the road despite the mounting debts of producer Shapiron. Its slightly hysterical leading lady, Carla Milo (Jacob), insists the show must go on and refuses to feign illness or injury so Shapiron can collect a hefty insurance payout.
Accompanying Carla on the out-of-town tryouts is a trio of has-been hams. Victor Vialat (Noiret) is a childlike fellow subject to stage fright and grandstanding. Eddie Carpentier (Rochefort) loves backstage romance with Carla as much as he does the footlights. Georges Cox (Marielle) is a foul-tempered stickler for union rates whose thirst for more money leads him to pass the hat round the audience after each performance.
The three actors protect the ever-suffering Carla as Shapiron plays hardball and attempts to injure her for insurance purposes. The onstage havoc gets so out of hand that “Scoubidou” accidentally becomes a runaway success and goes on tour abroad. In pic’s amusing final sequence, we see the actors going through their paces on Broadway, delivering their lines in comically execrable English.
No matter how mixed the effect of this ensemble comedy, everyone in the cast clearly had a good time going for the old-fashioned funny bone. Fortunately, Leconte never lets his fairly stale tale linger too long on any one character or dilemma. Everything, the good along with the bad, is presented quickly and efficiently before moving on to the next gag. Of the grimacing and grinning cast , Jacob and Marielle make the most of their fleeting moments to amuse the audience.
Pic is dynamically lensed by Eduardo Serra, and Annie Perier-Foulon’s costumes provide the right note of also-ran actorly chic. As a fond, soon-to-fade postcard of the world of French theater farces, “Dukes” works fairly well, despite its own failings, in getting laughs.