No thanks are in order for "Merci Docteur Rey," a disastrous stab at contemporary farce. Featuring career-worst performances from normally fine multinational thesps, this boondoggle set amidst the City of Light's operatic, cinematic and criminal spheres will cough up barely a chortle for all but the least discriminating auds.

No thanks are in order for “Merci Docteur Rey,” a disastrous stab at contemporary farce. Featuring career-worst performances from normally fine multinational thesps, this boondoggle set amidst the City of Light’s operatic, cinematic and criminal spheres will cough up barely a chortle for all but the least discriminating auds. Production shingle’s arthouse muscle might garner theatrical distrib in some territories. Getting patrons to show up will be another matter.

Dianne Wiest — amplifying the bombast of her Oscar-winning diva in “Bullets Over Broadway” to a fraction of its original comic payoff — plays Elisabeth Beaumont, an American opera star making her first Parisian appearance in some years. Her college-aged son Thomas (a pallid Stanislas Merhar) lives here, and has understandably mixed emotions about la mere’s simultaneously smothering and self-absorbed visit.

She’s as yet in the dark about his gay sexuality; he’s just getting started in that department himself, mostly via answering anonymous personal ads. Most ads end in dismal blind dates, but one response intrigues him — it’s from an older man who offers heady cash for sneaking into an apartment and hiding in the bedroom closet.

Against his better judgment, Thomas signs on, duly showing up at the designated address and watching from his secret spot as middle-aged Bob (an eye-blink appearance by Simon Callow) holds a rendezvous with a hunky younger man (Karim Saleh) that ends in a scuffle and the older man’s death. Fleeing, Thomas doesn’t know whether to call the police or not.

Landing on a shrink’s couch to cope, he rattles off the details to a woman he assumes is one Dr. Rey. But in fact the doc has just expired of a heart attack; paranoid client Penelope (Jane Birkin) pretends to be the psychiatrist. A voiceover-dubbing actor, Penelope has developed a delusion that she truly is Vanessa Redgrave, the thesp she’s regularly interpreted for French-language soundtrack translations.

Meanwhile a phone prank convinces Elisabeth that her son has been kidnapped for ransom. Holding a huge sack o’ cash and accompanied by imperturbable pal Claude (Bulle Ogier, managing to rise somewhat above the proceedings), she goes recklessly careening abound the city to “save” him.

Debuting U.S.-born, Paris-based writer-director Andrew Litvack (who’s worked on features helmed by both Ivory and Merchant) has devised a screenplay that may have looked salvageably antic on paper. As executed, however, it comes off as forced wackiness of the worst kind, at once cloddish and faux-sophisticated. (A useful comparison point might be Alan Rudolph’s much-cringed-at “Trixie.”)

There are very few decent lines amidst the feeble patter here. Among hectic later developments are news that Bob was Thomas’ “real” father, and the boy’s hot new romantic prospect was Bob’s killer. That neither of these details merits a moment’s pause in the happy-ending fadeout is typical of overall sloppy judgment.

Cast is left to its own devices, with half acting natural or bored, and half pushing the screechy-excess envelope. Several in-crowd celebrities make wholly gratuitous cameo appearances, including Jerry Hall and (as herself) Redgrave. Despite glamorous locations and a decent production budget, pic has no tangible grasp of composition, blocking, or editing rhythm either overall or in individual scenes. Soundtrack is outfitted with a labored array of “joke” musical selections. “Merci” begins and ends with a proscenium curtain, as if to say “It’s all just Theatre, darlings!”

Merci Docteur Rey

France-U.S.

Production

A Merchant Ivory Prods. presentation in association with Eat Your Soup Prods. Produced by Rahila Bootwala, Nathalie Gastaldo. Executive producer, Ismail Merchant. Co-producer, Paul Bradley. Directed, written by Andrew Litvack.

Crew

Camera (color), Laurent Machuel; editor, Giles Gardner; music, Geoffrey Alexander; production designer/art director, Jacques Bufnoir; costume designer, Pierre-Yves Gayraud; assistant director, Patrick Roques; casting, Annette Trumei. Reviewed at Roxie Cinema, San Francisco, Sept. 20, 2002. (In Mill Valley Film Festival.) Running time: 91 MIN.

With

Elisabeth Beaumont - Dianne Wiest Penelope - Jane Birkin Thomas Beaumont - Stanislas Merhar Claude Sabrie - Bulle Ogier Murderer - Karim Saleh Detective - Didier Flamand Taxi Driver - Roschdy Zem Radio Interviewer - Nathalie Richard Rollerboy - Dan Herzberg Bob - Simon Callow Sybil - Jerry Hall Herself - Vanessa Redgrave
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