Neither insipid nor inspired, Gallic success "Didier" delivers a delightfully stupid story about a dog who turns into a man and, in the process, becomes a soccer star. Scooping up with both paws many of the doggy gags that have worked in the past three decades or so of broad man-vs.-beast comedy, helmer-scripter-star Alain Chabat has nonetheless managed to make his borrowings seem fresh and, more important, French. As such, domestic B.O. promises rich rewards, although tickling funny bones elsewhere may prove harder, especially when the jokes seem familiar in translation. A lucrative cable career and long vid life are assured.

Neither insipid nor inspired, Gallic success “Didier” delivers a delightfully stupid story about a dog who turns into a man and, in the process, becomes a soccer star. Scooping up with both paws many of the doggy gags that have worked in the past three decades or so of broad man-vs.-beast comedy, helmer-scripter-star Alain Chabat has nonetheless managed to make his borrowings seem fresh and, more important, French. As such, domestic B.O. promises rich rewards, although tickling funny bones elsewhere may prove harder, especially when the jokes seem familiar in translation. A lucrative cable career and long vid life are assured.

Chabat, a local hero for his work with a now defunct cutting-edge TV comedy troupe, Les Nuls, is familiar to international audiences for his entertaining turn as the straight hubby cuckolded by a lesbian in Josiane Balasko’s “French Twist.” For his helming debut, Chabat has abandoned the caustic humor of his TV days for the good-natured belly laugh. Self-consciousness, the curse of French comedy, is thus mercifully absent from his pic.

Didier is a Labrador retriever entrusted to the care of Costa (played marvelously by Jean-Pierre Bacri) by the ditzy Annabelle (Caroline Cellier), a trend reporter leaving on assignment for a week. The churlish Costa, the general manager of a soccer club in a southern French city, accepts Didier even though his personal and professional life are a dog’s breakfast: His girlfriend (Isabelle Gelinas) has dumped him, and the Riviera thugs who own the club threaten him with violence if his injured star player doesn’t recover in time to win a big match against Paris.

When a stray, but never explained, moonbeam turns Didier the dog into Didier the man (Chabat), Costa’s luck improves. As he teaches Didier the predictable rudiments — no sniffing of bottoms, how to use a toilet, etc. — the man/dog imparts the importance of compassion and loyalty to Costa, who, under the mutt’s influence, becomes a mensch worthy of a woman’s love. Luckily, the canine hybrid is also a whiz with a soccer ball, and Costa manages to train and field him in time for an important game in a fairly hilarious sequence expensively shot in Paris’ Parc des Princes stadium.

Perfs in this exercise in silliness are up to par. Although Chabat’s panting imitation of dumb doggishness amuses, by mid-pic it has definitely gotten old and is ultimately overshadowed by Bacri’s cynical human. His presence is nicely supported by Cellier’s dog owner, who consistently hits the right hysterical notes.

Subplots concerning a crank seer (Balasko), a gadget-loving fan (Les Nuls stalwart Dominique Farrugia) and a group of angry skinheads fail utterly, although these can easily be forgotten once the ridiculous soccer finale begins. It is, quite simply, light years ahead of a similar sequence attempted last year in Coline Serreau’s dreadful “Visit to a Green Planet.”

The work of lenser Laurent Dailland is perhaps too lush and artful for such a frivolous venture, yet his images always relieve in pic’s frequently tiresome moments. Other tech credits are competent, as is Chabat’s unerring eye for the lowbrow and the ludicrous. “Didier” may prove to be a dog with legs.

Didier

(French)

Production

An AMLF release (in France) of a Katharina/Renn/TF1 Films/Wam production, in association with Canal Plus. (International sales: President Films, Paris.) Produced by Claude Berri. Directed, written by Alain Chabat.

Crew

Camera (color), Laurent Dailland; editors, Roland Baubeau, Annick Filley; music, Philippe Chany; production design, Jean-Marc Kerdelhue; costume design, Sylvie Gautrelet; sound (Dolby SR Digital/DTS), Dominique Warnier; special effects, Duboi; animal trainer, Patrick Pittavino; assistant director, Robert Kechichian; casting, Pierre Amzallag. Reviewed at Les Alpes theater, Val d'Isere, France, Jan. 30, 1997. Running time: 105 MIN.

With

Didier ..... Alain Chabat Costa ..... Jean-Pierre Bacri Maria ..... Isabelle Gelinas Annabelle ..... Caroline Cellier
With: Lionel Abelanski, Jean-Marie Frin, Michel Bompoil, Zinedine Soualem, Jacques Vincey, Chantal Lauby, Josiane Balasko, Dominique Farrugia, Dieudonne.
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