In "The Closet," writer-director Francis Veber's much-awaited followup to his hit comedy "The Dinner Game," a heterosexual milquetoast who's about to be fired keeps his job and inspires sudden awe at the office when his co-workers become convinced he's gay.

In “The Closet,” writer-director Francis Veber’s much-awaited followup to his hit comedy “The Dinner Game,” a heterosexual milquetoast who’s about to be fired keeps his job and inspires sudden awe at the office when his co-workers become convinced he’s gay. Pic plugs a troika of locally beloved thesps into a clever premise that’s good for many laughs, though far fewer helpless guffaws than its predecessor. Astute riff on reverse discrimination could be remade in any country where homosexuality is no longer taboo and political correctness is ripe for satire, but shouldn’t be attempted without a cast as well oiled as this one. Pic opened in Gaul Jan. 17.

As in “The Dinner Game,” the central character is again named Francois Pignon, played this time by Daniel Auteuil, an actor for whom the words “gifted” and “versatile” are beginning to seem far too pale. Audiences have traditionally been asked to laugh at the recurring character of Pignon (last played by the tubby Jacques Villeret), but here Pignon is the catalyst rather than the unrelieved scapegoat. Taking aim at a wide range of broad and petty injustices, Veber provides some excellent one-liners and plenty of situational humor, with Pignon’s character anchoring the comedy of mistaken impressions by providing the calm center around which considerable lunacy revolves.

Still in love with his ex-wife after two years apart, Pignon, a kindly accountant who is unassuming to the point of near-invisibility, accidentally overhears the news that he’s soon to be fired after 20 years. Pining for his wife and semi-estranged from his son, he thinks of ending it all. But his new next-door neighbor, Belone (Michel Aumont), employs deft psychology to dissuade him, making a new friend in the process.

Belone’s radical solution is to ask Pignon for photos of himself. Using a computer, Belone makes racy montages by pasting Pignon’s head on bodies photographed in a gay bar. By anonymously mailing the faked photos to Pignon’s company, management will be forced to backpedal — because the firing, after two decades of loyal service, could be construed as sexual discrimination.

Pignon says he could never pretend to be gay, but Belone assures him that’s the beauty of the ruse. In light of this “new” information, it’s those around him who will project new impressions — from “He’s pretty sexy after all” to “I always thought he must be a pedophile” — onto the blank slate of Pignon’s discreet demeanor.

Once the incriminating photos have made the rounds of office fax machines, the social satire starts in earnest. CEO Kopel (Jean Rochefort) reminds his staff it could be bad for business (the company manufactures condoms) if one of the firm’s prime demographics learn a recently outed employee had been fired. So Pignon not only remains on board, but is treated with deference instead of derision.

PR director Guillaume (Thierry Lhermitte) decides to play a vicious prank on Felix (Gerard Depardieu), the personnel director and rugby team coach who’s a homophobic jerk when he’s not being a sexist, racist thug. He advises Felix to be extra nice to Pignon for the sake of the company. With Guillaume feeding him leading lines, Felix falls all over himself to seem tolerant, inviting Pignon to lunch, buying him gifts and engaging in such blatant favor-currying that Felix’s wife assumes he’s cheating on her with another woman.

Learning to be yourself by pretending to be something you’re not is a cinematic chestnut given a few new flavors here. Thrust into the spotlight, the nerdy Pignon gradually finds himself transformed into a mensch.

Comic highlights include the CEO giving Asian businessmen an impromptu tour of the factory while Pignon’s sexy fellow accountant, Miss Bertrand (Michele Laroque), who isn’t convinced he’s gay, tests her theory on him. As the gruff “man’s man” who has a change of heart, Depardieu, who underwent emergency bypass surgery mid-shoot, lends all the right shadings to his role.

Lensing in the ultramodern company offices and a handful of nondescript urban locales is unfussy. Package is trimmed with a nicely dosed, if unmemorable, Vladimir Cosma score.

The Closet

France

Production

A Gaumont Buena Vista Intl. release of a Gaumont/EFVE Films/TF1 Films production, with participation of Canal Plus. Produced by Alain Poire. Directed, written by Francis Veber.

Crew

Camera (color, widescreen), Luciano Tovoli; editor, Georges Klotz; music, Vladimir Cosma; art director, Hugues Tissandier; costume designer, Jacqueline Bouchard; sound (Dolby), Bernard Bats, Francois Groult; assistant director, Bernard Seitz; casting, Francoise Menidrey, Franck Jouard. Reviewed at Gaumont Ambassade, Paris, Dec. 12, 2000. Running time: 80 MIN.

With

Francois Pignon - Daniel Auteuil
Felix Santini - Gerard Depardieu
Guillaume - Thierry Lhermitte
Miss Bertrand - Michele Laroque
Belone - Michel Aumont
Kopel - Jean Rochefort
Christine - Alexandra Vandernoot
With: Stanislas Crevillen, Edgar Givry, Thierry Ashanti, Armelle Deutsch, Irina Ninova, Marianne Groves, Michele Garcia.
Follow @Variety on Twitter for breaking news, reviews and more