Quebecois TV writer-director Stephane Lapointe's debut feature boasts a dynamite title -- "The Secret Life of Happy People" -- and an intriguing premise -- an ugly duckling, terminally klutzy, underachieving son born into the perfect bourgeois family. Engaging cast, goosed by knockout newcomer Catherine de Lean's could spell healthy B.O.

Quebecois TV writer-director Stephane Lapointe’s debut feature boasts a dynamite title — “The Secret Life of Happy People” — and an intriguing premise — an ugly duckling, terminally klutzy, underachieving son born into the perfect bourgeois family. Lapointe displays a light touch with comedy, as thesps nimbly dance the tightrope between character and caricature. When pic spirals into darker waters, however, the transition feels overly schematic, wavering uncertainly between tragedy and bathos. Still, engaging cast, goosed by knockout newcomer Catherine de Lean’s quirky femme fatale, could spell healthy B.O. for francophone entry which bowed Sept. 8 in Canada after closing Montreal fest.

Thomas (Marc Paquet) is ruefully aware of his inadequacies. While his older sister practices medicine in London, his father Bernard (Gilbert Sicotte) runs a highly successful food company, and his mother Solange (Marie Gignac) is a teacher who sidelines as a TV quiz show champ, the 25-year-old Thomas is still struggling to make the grade as an architecture student.

Then a seemingly chance encounter with dazzling, free-spirited waitress Audrey (De Lean) injects him with confidence. Soon Thomas’ professors are heaping praise on his newly inventive architectural designs and muse Audrey is cozily welcomed into the fold by Thomas’ beaming parents.

But Audrey is full of surprises, not the least of them a little daughter named Charlotte (Mariane Lalumiere). Though she claims to be madly attracted to Thomas, she avoids his advances.

As it turns out, Audrey has been hired by Thomas’ parents to improve his academic performance, and has little interest in the clueless dork. Instead, she is eyeing dad Bernard. Finally, the big guy falls, hard.

The family starts visibly unraveling. Director Lapointe, however, cannot seem to decide whether to delight in the downfall of a complacent bourgeois couple whose desire to manipulate everyone backfires on them or to pity the unsuspecting nuclear family derailed by libidinous and class forces that it never before acknowledged.

While cinema delights in such tonal ambiguities, the switchover from nuanced comedy to overblown melodrama occurs so precipitously and so inexorably that it becomes predictable.

At the same time, Lapointe sends mixed stylistic messages: His run-of-the-mill climactic moments are unfortunately played straight, validating the seriousness too much for parody — while the characters have become too caricatured for empathy.

Thesping is strong throughout. Paquet’s Thomas projects a wry, nerdish amiability that maintains audience sympathy. As Bernard, Sicotte’s transformation from expansive moral family man to obsessed middle-aged buffoon encompasses a gallery of comic turns that Lapointe’s generally witty script happily facilitates. As the catalyst to the dynasty’s downfall, De Lean sparkles with mischievous anarchic energy.

Tech credits are polished.

The Secret Life of Happy People

Canada

Production

A Cristal Films presentation of a Max Films production. (International sales: Max Films, Montreal.) Produced by Roger Frappier, Luc Vandal. Directed, written by Stephane Lapointe.

Crew

Camera (color, widescreen), Jean-Francois Lord; editor, Richard Comeau; music, Pierre Desrochers; art director, Frederic Page; costume designer, Annie Dufort; sound (Dolby SRD), Gilles Corbeil; casting, Lucie Robitaille. Reviewed at Montreal Film Festival (competing), Sept. 4, 2006. Running time: 102 MIN. (French dialogue)

With

Bernard Dufresne - Gilbert Sicotte Thomas Dufresne - Marc Paquet Audrey Marion - Catherine de Lean Solange Dufresne - Marie Gignac Charlotte - Mariane Lalumiere Simon - Maxime Denommee
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