Second film from young Belgian-born director Lucas Belvaux, “Just for Laughs” is an amiably undemanding sex comedy, revolving around the staple ingredients of adultery, jealousy and mistaken identity, that could have been made any time in the past 50 years. The presence in a lead role of Jean-Pierre Leaud often gives the feeling of watching a posthumous entry by Francois Truffaut in the accident-prone career of his alter ego, Antoine Doinel. Those who like their comedies safe, well-mannered and spiced with just the teeniest hint of traditional ooh-la-la should find “Just for Laughs” to their taste.
Plot comes across like a Parisian rehash of Woody Allen’s “Husbands and Wives,” centering on two couples, linked by friendship and professional contact. One pair, Juliette and Michel, have split and he’s gone off with a younger woman, the nudgingly named Romance. The other two, Alice and Nicolas, seem more stable, but in fact she’s restless and is having an affair with Gaspard, a hunky sports photographer. Cue much lurking in doorways and sidewalk cafes as Nicolas tries to catch the guilty pair in flagrante.
Leaud, floppy-haired and beadily neurotic as ever, is well suited as Nicolas, a man gripped by a baleful obsession. Narrowing his eyes and growling throatily in what might pass for Japanese, he gives chase in a variety of ill-chosen vehicles as wife and lover jaunt about Paris on the latter’s motorbike. The oriental touch derives from Nicolas’ weekly martial arts class, and for a while it seems he may be planning to dice the pair with a samurai sword. But this element, like much else in the pic, simmers awhile but never comes to the boil.
As his errant spouse, Alice, Ornella Muti pouts fetchingly but scarcely convinces as the hotshot defense lawyer she’s supposed to be, and intermittent courtroom scenes clog the action rather than adding a dimension.
Despite the ostensible subject matter, the movie’s sexual activity is covert to the point of invisibility, making for a rarefied, unreal atmosphere. “Just for Laughs” has less genuine sensuality — and far less sense of pain — than the average Feydeau farce. It’s clear the last thing helmer-scripter Belvaux wants to do is disturb anybody — unlike his cousin Remy, co-director-writer-star of the notorious black comedy “Man Bites Dog.” Danielle Anezin’s editing is lively, pointing up the plethora of agreeable sight gags, and Laurent Bares’ photography makes the streets of Paris look as casually atmospheric as ever.