Sam Follow Jean-Marc Barr
Betty Gunilla Karlzen
Ned Collins Jean Yanne
Mo Christine Pignet
Zeck Adama Niane
With: Philippe du Janerand, Marie-Laure Dougnac, Bernard Haller, Cecile Vassort, Fabrice Benichou.
Quirky to the point of truly puzzling, the genre-bending comedy “Mo’ ” came and went unnoticed in the dog days of a Paris summer. Mix of movie cliches and comic-book sensibility marks first-time scripter-helmer Yves-Noel Francois as a member of what might be called the “Delicatessen” generation of youngish French filmmakers. But this hard-to-classify, uneven bow is more likely to be confined to the festival circuit and a long life in Euro vid bins, mis-shelved under Sci-Fi, Mystery or Comedy.
Francois, a Cesar-nominated maker of shorts and fictionalized docus, attempts to send up the old-style, central-casting characters that are supposed to inhabit our collective moviegoing unconscious. Pic gently subverts its “Roger Rabbit”like premise of characters trapped in an imaginary world by reverting to outright parody, as a Sam Spadetype detective (Jean-Marc Barr) explores the seamy underside of a world-dominating movie and TV studio.
When sticking to its sly movie homages, “Mo’ ” is unrelentingly clever. But when aiming for broader absurdist yocks, it veers dangerously close to forced moments reminiscent of Monty Python.
Mo (Christine Pignet) is Monica Fitzgerald Castarazzi Simmons, a stout matron in charge of an entertainment monopoly headquartered in a dadaist industrial plant straight out of Terry Gilliam’s “Brazil.” One of Mo’s most successful stock characters, Ned Collins (Jean Yanne), a Western sheriff, has gone missing in the midst of the TV season, so she engages the Bogey-like Sam Follow (Barr) to track him down.
In the course of his hard-drinking, hard-fighting investigation, Follow inevitably comes across a femme fatale, Betty (Gunilla Karlzen), a blond bimbo by day and punk murderess by night. She tells him of Mo’s “sprites,” actors who have been brainwashed into thinking that they actually are the characters they play. As the quest for Ned heats up, thanks to leads given by an aphorism-spouting African medicine man (Adama Niane), the detective and his moll eventually pose the pic’s big question: Is everyone in this brave new world of entertainment a brainwashed sprite?
Helmer Francois’ ingenious script the pic’s strong suit answers with a series of film noir twists and turns that end in an unusually satisfying finale. Whatever the movie’s other failings, its loose ends are nicely tied together in an existential climax that shows the story’s French parentage. The Hungarian side of the production is in evidence in the unfamiliar locations and deserted Stalinist complexes that Francois uses to good atmospheric effect.
The performances, especially Yanne’s deadpan cowboy do-gooder, consistently amuse, even if the nature of the story calls for one-dimensional characters. As the detective, Barr is both likable and believable, as is Karlzen’s nighttime tough girl. Thesps founder where the pic does: in pointless sketch comedy that digresses from the story’s central quest. The first scene, an endless, gag-filled bit about an improvised airport, shows a comic shakiness that does a disservice to the rest of “Mo’.”
Tech credits are adequate. Set designer Nikos Meletopoulos has the good taste not to overwhelm the screen with gadgets, and lenser Carlo Varini lets the script’s strangeness come to the fore, unencumbered by visual tricks.