A down-on-his-luck philosophy professor aims for “The High Life,” yet winds up turning into a first-rate lowlife, in actor-turned-filmmaker Emmanuel Salinger’s uproarious but uneven debut feature. With a nonstop rhythm reminiscent of ’30s screwball comedies and a terrific lead performance by Laurent Capelluto (“A Christmas Tale”), pic remains interesting, though fairly jumbled, during 80 racy minutes that seem to have suffered numerous trips to the chopping block. Still, the attempt at broad moral satire distinguishes the film from the typical French farce, and it merits a modest second life abroad after bowing in Gaul this fall.
Salinger is best known for playing the mesmerizing lead in Arnaud Desplechin’s “La Sentinelle” (which he also co-wrote), as well as one of the protags in Desplechin’s “My Sex Life … or How I Got Into An Argument,” after which he landed mostly supporting roles and penned several screenplays. For this, his first feature at the helm, he shows plenty of ambition and a real knack for directing actors, but seems to have a hard time holding it all together in a coherent and sustainable fashion.
The shenanigans kick off with a slapstick scene that shows provincial high school teacher Gregoire (Capelluto) getting buried by his own collapsing bookshelves, then taking part in a botched protest for illegal immigrants. When a rep from his community group is invited onto a primetime talkshow, Gregoire heads to Paris, where he befriends celebrity host Patrick (Michel Boujenah) after a rather hilarious showdown in the TV network’s parking garage.
Although he’s not much of a philosopher (his explanation of Descartes’ famous “I think, therefore I am” to his students is comically ineffective), Gregoire captivates the much older Patrick with his common-sense straight talk and humble origins. He soon becomes Patrick’s intellectual guru and sentimental confidant, leaving behind his bookworm fiancee (Helene Fillieres) for a lively journalist (Celine Sallette) he literally fell upon during the earlier protest.
With a script (co-written with four other credited screenwriters, including Pascal Bonitzer) that tosses in far too many characters and subplots, Salinger would have done well to stay focused on Gregoire and Patrick throughout. Instead, he tries to slap together a brainstorm of ideas through hasty cutting that fails to give certain scenes their due screen time, while a boisterous big-band score by Pierre Bertrand is thrown in at each interval.
The narrative finds some stable ground late in the game, thanks largely to Capelluto’s witty and acrobatic thesping, which even includes a convincing bit of tap dancing. Boujenah pleasantly underplays the gregarious Patrick, while Fillieres and Sallette are never given enough room to be anything but second-tier love interests in what’s basically an intergenerational French bromance coupled with a star-struck morality tale.
Widescreen, Technicolor-esque lensing by Stephan Massis (“Looking for Cheyenne”) is another element that makes pic feel like a throwback to the Hollywood of yesteryear.