The worst nightmare of a tyrannical, virulently Francophobic Belgian customs officer comes true when the Schengen agreement, which erases intra-European borders, is announced in “Nothing to Declare.” Gallic comedian-scribe-helmer Dany Boon sticks closely to the template of his previous pic, local B.O. monster “Welcome to the Sticks,” substituting national north-south differences for the prejudices and cliches that exist about the French and the Belgians. Thesping is strong, general approach more cinematic and the early going again densely packed with gags and guffaws. Though Boon struggles to sustain comic momentum, local returns will again be huge.
As did its predecessor, the pic preems earlier in northern Gaul (and Belgium), on Jan. 26, and in the rest of France a week later. “Sticks” and “Declare” both hinge on the kind of humor that won’t travel to places unfamiliar with the pre-existing prejudices that are being lampooned, which means that outside Francophone markets, where “Sticks” made more than $200 million, remake potential is more interesting than distribution (an Italian remake of “Sticks” did boffo biz locally).
The basic Boon template: Take an intolerant/chauvinistic man in early middle-age, bring him into contact with what he’s most afraid of and see the comic sparks fly while a can’t-we-all-get-along message naturally breaks the surface. Mix in a jovial sidekick, played by the helmer, who doubles as a love interest for a beautiful young thing, thus not only providing the protag with a comic foil but also adding some romance for the female ticketbuyers for whom all that male posturing might be a bit much.
Hugely popular Belgian comedian Benoit Poelvoorde (“Podium,” “Romantics Anonymous”), plays the gun-toting and God-fearing Ruben Vandevoorde, the kind of Belgian customs officer who calls Gallic citizens “camemberts” and who has no qualms about stopping every dirty little Frenchman who wants to enter the Great Nation of Belgium for a full, borderline-sadistic check.
Boon is Mathias, a colleague of Ruben’s on the French side of the same provincial border crossing. He’s secretly dating Ruben’s pretty sister, Louise (Julie Bernard), though Ruben and his Francophobe family, including his cute patriotic son, Leopold (Joachim Ledeganck), are blissfully unaware of this fact.
Majority of the story unspools in the winter of 1993, when obligatory border checks within Europe became a thing of the past. This not only has consequences for the work of the border officers, but also for Frenchwoman Irene (Karin Viard) and her dumb-as-a-doorknob Belgian hubby, Jacques (Francois Damiens), who are afraid they’ll see the clientele of their restaurant, “No Man’s Land,” disappear when the borders are gone.
When Ruben is forced to be part of the first Franco-Belgian mobile customs unit, responsible for tracking down cross-border contraband, Mathias volunteers to join, in the hope of befriending his prospective brother-in-law. This development offers the comedians some hilarious scenes together but also introduces more problematic elements: a crime boss (Laurent Gamelon) and his two bumbling drug traffickers (Bruno Lochet, Laurent Capelluto).
Boon’s screenplay is chock-full of one-liners that betray his background as a standup comedian, but fails to bring the narrative to its logical conclusion. The minor crime story snowballs into something that derails much of the third act, which results in a series of unconvincing action sequences — a first for the helmer — that are neither scary nor particularly funny.
Similarly, a climactic New Year’s Eve dinner scene that could have been a comic slamdunk weirdly deflates as Boon concentrates on funny accents instead of the situation’s comic and narrative potential. The scribe-helmer himself must have felt something didn’t quite work, as Philippe Rombi’s cue-offering score is more clearly present in the later reels than in the more confident first hour.
Poelvoorde is in his element and generates just enough warmth — especially in Vandevoorde’s scenes with his little son — to suggest that there’s a human being underneath that trigger-happy racist. Viard finally introduces a strong-willed — if wrong-headed — femme into the Booniverse, a quality sorely lacking in the generic love-interest role limned by newcomer Bernard. Bouli Lanners gives another melancholy perf as one of Ruben’s colleagues, though it feels like some of his story has ended up on the cutting-room floor, while Olivier Gourmet steals his few scenes as Ruben’s priest and confessor. Multitasker Boon himself essentially repeats his lovesick schlub shtick from “Sticks.”
Whereas Boon’s previous pics, which were also widescreen, looked rather generic, lenser Pierre Aim’s work is more atmospheric and sophisticated here, especially in the early establishing shots. The 1993 setting is also a source of humor, with some of the props, such as some outsized IT-equipment, cleverly used for laughs.