The recent upswing in vulgar bigscreen comedy hits French-Canadian cinema with a vengeance via “Elvis Gratton II — Miracle in Memphis,” a relentlessly lowbrow, frequently hilarious spoof about a Montreal Elvis impersonator. Lions Gate opened the pic July 1 on 91 screens across Quebec to record B.O. for a local production, with the film netting more than C$1 million ($680,000) during its first four days of release. It will almost certainly go on to become one of the all-time top French-Canadian hits. But as is usually the case with Quebec comedies, the slangy dialogue and unabashedly local laughs mean this Canuck Elvis is not likely to make much music outside the territory.
With its mass-appeal gags, “Elvis Gratton II” fits solidly in the tradition of the populist comedies that have tended to be the hottest box office performers in Quebec. The film has the marketing plus of the original 1985 film, which stitched together three shorts from 1981-85, and which has become a cult video hit in the province.The latest pic from controversial Quebec helmer Pierre Falardeau works best when it makes no bones about its down-market sense of humor, but the French-language comedy is much less successful when Falardeau attempts to hammer home his separatist political message. The level of the argument is surprisingly crude — his point seems to be that pro-Canadian federalists are morons, and it’s Scotch-taped on to what is essentially an old-fashioned comic romp.
Naturally enough, given that he died at the end of the original, Bob “Elvis” Gratton (Julien Poulin) rises from the grave at the start of the sequel. The hospital doctors are perplexed when their high-tech machines show that Gratton’s brain is registering absolutely no mental activity. After a few gags at the hospital, including a scene in which his pal Meo (Yves Trudel) pours a bottle of whiskey into his IV tube, Gratton heads to the countryside for a few days of relaxation with Meo.
Out of the blue, a stretch limo appears at their run-down country vacation spot and out pops showbiz agent Donald Bill Clinton (Barry Blake), a Col. Parker-like Southern swindler who tells Gratton he has to “think big,” and signs on to market the singer around the world.
Before you can sing “Love Me Tender,” Gratton is touring the globe with his cheesy act, a French director arrives to make a biopic, and Gratton and Clinton set up Gratton Intl. Corp. to handle their diversified activities.
To say there’s little plot is an understatement. The pic is essentially a series of comic sketches strung together, and the script begins to show signs of wear and tear after the one-hour mark. Co-writers Falardeau and Poulin underline the off-the-cuff style of the piece by including a penultimate scene in which the two discuss how to end the film.
Lack of a strong story makes for an uneven film, but there’s no denying that the first hour contains some of the funnier moments of Canadian cinema from the past few years.
Memorable comic moments include Gratton’s becoming embroiled in a bitter dispute with the automated voice-system in his new stretch limo, the interaction between the Quebec singer and the Gallic film director, and the running gag built around Meo’s inability to articulate anything in any language.
But the film simply doesn’t work as political satire. Falardeau and Poulin’s rather juvenile thesis is that this tacky, money-grubbing Elvis imitator is the quintessential Canadian federalist — a dimwit obsessed with American culture and enamored of big business. There are endless jokes about Prime Minister Jean Chretien and provincial Liberal leader Jean Charest; the trouble is that these barbs tend to be less about eliciting laughs and more about scoring mean-spirited partisan points. In addition, most of these scenes will be incomprehensible to anyone outside Canada.
One of the reasons the pic remains mostly a pleasure to watch is Poulin’s lead performance. The veteran thesp, reprising his role from the first pic, handles the slapstick comedy with inspired enthusiasm. It’s a testament to his abilities that he makes this sleazy character somehow appealing. Trudel is also a laugh riot as the cigar-chomping, wordless sidekick, while Blake is too much of a caricature as the greedy agent.
Alain Dostie’s photography and Jean-Baptiste Tard’s art direction go for the most garish look imaginable and succeed in spades, with splashes of gaudy colors and hideous-looking sets. Score by Jean St-Jacques is heavy on suitably cheesy rock tunes.