Even though you can hear the clockwork mechanism ticking, comic craftsman Francis Veber has tooled another bigscreen timepiece with a fun premise and satisfying quotient of laughs in "The Valet."

Even though you can hear the clockwork mechanism ticking, comic craftsman Francis Veber (“The Dinner Game,” “The Closet”) has tooled another bigscreen timepiece with a fun premise and satisfying quotient of laughs in “The Valet.” Writer-helmer’s specialty has been male duos, but this tale of a billionaire industrialist who asks his mistress to pose as the sweetheart of a valet parking attendant features a dandy role for leggy looker Alice Taglioni and also has the impeccable Kristin Scott Thomas and Virginie Ledoyen in the mix. Local prognosis looks promising for this March 29 release, with offshore deals more than likely.

This time, Veber’s recurring protag, mild-mannered Francois Pignon, is played by saucer-eyed comic Gad Elmaleh. Pignon and his best friend Richard (Dany Boon, the aide-de-camp in WWI drama “Merry Christmas”) park cars at a classy restaurant across from the Eiffel Tower. Pignon’s bought a diamond ring on installment plan and intends to propose to Emilie (Ledoyen), his childhood sweetheart who’s gone into massive debt to open a bookshop.

The fortunes of notorious captain of industry Levasseur (Daniel Auteuil, who played Pignon in “The Closet”) depend on his wife of 20 years, Christine (Scott Thomas), whose family owns 60% of his empire. So, when a photographer publishes a shot of him arguing with his mistress (and well-known cover girl), Elena (Taglioni), Levasseur needs an airtight excuse to avert divorce.

Levasseur’s smooth attorney, Foix (Richard Berry), hits on a baroque solution: find the passerby who’s also in the photo and convince Elena to shack up with him for appearances’ sake. The unassuming fellow happens to be Pignon, who’s depressed because Emilie turned down his proposal.

Situational yucks ensue as the statuesque blonde moves into Pignon’s ultra-humble apartment and the two make sure the paparazzi have plenty of photo ops. Pignon doesn’t know what’s really going on; but Elena and Christine definitely do, and the war is on. Plus, when it looks as if the fake couple is no longer altogether fake, jealousy strikes Levasseur with full force.

Layers of intrigue mesh with Hollywood-style efficiency, pitting sincere feelings against ruthlessly mercenary machinations. Also in Hollywood style, sincerity and integrity carry the day.

Thesps are ideally cast across the board, although Elmaleh is the least-schleppy and least annoying Pignon to date, which may disorient or disappoint some Gallic viewers. Michele Garcia and Michel Jonasz are particularly adorable as Pignon’s unpretentious parents; Michel Aumont is a hoot as a doctor who’s allergic to his patients; and Karl Lagerfeld provides a regal cameo when Elena stars in his latest runway collection.

Lensing is efficient, editing doesn’t betray even a single superfluous frame and Alexandre Desplat’s swinging score lends additional buoyancy.

The Valet

France

Production

A Gaumont Columbia TriStar Films release of a Gaumont presentation, in association with Columbia Pictures Films Prod. France, of a Gaumont, EFVE Films, TF1 Films Prod., Kairos Films production, with participation of Artemis, Canal Plus, CineCinema. Produced by Patrice Ledoux. Directed, written by Francis Veber.

Crew

Camera (color, widescreen), Robert Fraisse; editor, Georges Klotz; music, Alexandre Desplat; production designer, Dominique Andre; costume designer, Jacqueline Bouchard; sound (Dolby), Bernard Bats, Thomas Desjonqueres, Gerard Lamps; assistant director, Alain Olivieri; casting, Francoise Menidrey. Reviewed at UGC Les Halles, Paris, March 29, 2006. Running time: 85 MIN. With: Gad Elmaleh, Alice Taglioni, Daniel Auteuil, Kristin Scott Thomas, Richard Berry, Virginie Ledoyen, Dany Boon, Michel Jonasz, Michel Aumont, Patrick Mille, Laurent Gamelon, Michele Garcia, Karl Lagerfeld.
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