An unborn’s unlikely moniker is the simple but effective motor of “What’s in a Name?” a French comedy adapted from a play by Matthieu Delaporte and Alexandre de la Patelliere. Starring most of the original cast and directed by its playwrights, pic is the latest in a long line of Gallic stage-to-screen successes that essentially provide wider access to the material while never quite adding a cinematic edge. Despite a less potent second half, whammo local B.O. (it’s sold more tix at home than “The Avengers”) should spike offshore interest for theatrical and possibly remake rights.
Simply called “Le Prenom,” or “The Given Name,” in French, the film starts with a credits sequence that identifies crew members by their first names only (it’s produced by “Dimitri and Jerome”), followed by a quick montage sequence that introduces the protags by listing their respective idiosyncrasies.
The characters gather at the well-appointed Parisian apartment of petit-bourgeois intellectual Pierre (Charles Berling) and his overly anxious wife, Elisabeth (Valerie Benguigui). Elisabeth’s fey childhood friend, Claude (Guillaume De Tonquedec), with whom she used to attend dance classes, and Pierre’s laissez-faire brother, Vincent (Patrick Bruel), have arrived for dinner. They make small talk while waiting for Anna (Judith El Zein), Vincent’s pregnant and perpetually late wife.
Things tip over into craziness when Vincent reveals the first name he and Anna have chosen for their firstborn. The revelation sets in motion a cascade of rapid-fire reactions and counterarguments that are not only hilarious and snappily delivered, but also constitute a remarkably intelligent exploration of the value and importance (or lack thereof) of a particular name.
Things reach a fever pitch when Anna arrives, and Elisabeth, who was in the kitchen when the big reveal was made, also becomes part of the drama, with d.p. David Ungaro increasingly using handheld shots to convey the initially polite conversation’s eruption into chaos (the only cinematic trick here impossible to reproduce onstage).
But after everyone has found out and had time to react, there’s still 45 minutes on the clock, and it’s here that this smart, witty picture eases into the typical stuff of boulevard comedies: secret affairs, hidden agendas and uneasy truths. There are still plenty of chuckles to be had, but the pic never again vibrates with intelligence as well as belly laughs.
Delaporte and de la Patelliere, better known as screenwriters, especially of animated fare (“Renaissance,” “The Prodigies,” “Le petit prince”), had a huge hit on their hands with their first play, so it’s no surprise they’ve adapted it for the bigscreen themselves. And except for Berling, who replaces Jean-Michel Dupuis, the directors have brought onboard the entire original cast. This makes their job much easier, as countless performances have perfected the timing and tone of each single line. Perhaps unsurprisingly, all thesps — Berling very much included — are superb.
Marie Cheminal’s production design suggests volumes about the kind of people Pierre and Elisabeth are, while the numerous lamps and lampshades integrated into the set bathe the entire apartment in a benign, yellowish light. Music choices seem somewhat eclectic for such a middle-class, taste-sensitive gathering, but otherwise production values are sharp.