A French anti-smoking movie may seem like an oxymoron, but it’s done with some skill in “The Bet,” a kicking-the-habit farce scripted, helmed and played by local laugh kings Didier Bourdon and Bernard Campan. Although the two cavort this time without Pascal Legitimus, their longtime henchman in the Inconnus sketch-comedy trio that struck local B.O. gold in its screen debut (“The Three Brothers”), “The Bet” is nonetheless drawing big crowds at home, if only because the two principals are so well-liked. Given the unevenness of the comic pacing and the largely local content, pic won’t travel well outside of French-speaking territories, particularly those places where quitting smoking is no longer seen as revolutionary.
Setup is classic French social comedy of rich vs. poor. Bernard (Campan) teaches in a rough-and-tumble high school; Didier (Bourdon) is a well-heeled pharmacist in a tony Paris neighborhood. As nicely detailed by the opening, they detest each other for so many political, social, aesthetic, material and linguistic reasons that their wives, who are sisters, dread bringing them together. At a family gathering, the genteel baiting and well-observed Gallic one-upmanship lead the chain-smoking enemies to swear off cigarettes for two weeks, to show the other who is more of a man.
Pic then becomes a series of mildly funny, mildly depressing scenes in which each quitter is seen going through binge eating, manic exercising, forced gaiety, absent-mindedness, mood swings, insomnia and all the other ills attendant on going cold turkey. Their marriages break up, and, in script’s best moment, the now-bonded brothers-in-law join an anti-tobacco cult whose brainwashed members spout infantile slogans.
Perfs by Campan and Bourdon are consistently strong, as are the straight-woman roles given their characters’ partners (Isabelle Ferron, Isabel Otero). Tech credits are polished, particularly set designer Christian Marti’s fine eye for details betraying socioeconomic warfare.
The digital and costuming work necessary to transform the two leads into fatty behemoths in the latter reels is reminiscent of the prowess shown in “The Nutty Professor.” Unfortunately, by then auds will have tired of the pic’s sendup of self-control and wish that more of the same had been shown in the cutting room.