There’s a stylized comedy struggling to emerge in “The Gods Must Be Dancing,” and it’s dragging its heels nearly every step of the way. Local auds will glean some pleasure from extensive cast of Gallic faves on the trail of a valuable, misplaced statuette, but vet helmer Michel Deville never achieves the carefree, engaging tone the wacky material desperately requires. Busy but less than riveting result reps an instance when the flippant insouciance of Donald Westlake, on whose novel “Dancing Aztecs” pic is based, would appear to travel better in written than in filmed form.
Under opening credits, a small golden statue worth $1 million is stolen from a museum in Mali and shepherded through customs mixed in with cheap replicas. Their destination: Lyon, where the copies are to be funneled to the founding members of a new squash club while the priceless original is routed to a pair of short, violence-prone bad guys (Richard Gotainer, Olivier Py).
There’s a mix-up with jaunty delivery man Alex (popular TV personality and actor Antoine de Caunes), and the real statue is given accidentally to one of the club members. Bachelor Alex and his extended family of friends and relatives set out to track down and examine all 10 wayward statues.
Plentiful complications include competition from handsome young pool salesman Jean-Baptiste (Robert Plagnol), who overhears the whole scheme while hiding in a closet after his tryst with Angele (Elodie Bouchez) is interrupted by the return of her nerdy but much-loved hubby (Bruno Podalydes).
While African emissary Mamadou (Hubert Kounde, from Mathieu Kassovitz’s “Cafe au Lait” and “Hate”) heads for France in a cargo plane, harpist Bobbi (Emmanuelle Seigner) walks out on her husband (Frederic Gelard) and drives off to Rome with one of the statues in her suitcase. In pic’s most amusing set piece, Bobbi tosses her nude hubby’s entire wardrobe out the window before soaking all sheets and towels in the tub — making it awkward for him to leave the house.
Characters barge in and out of one another’s lives, pausing to tussle, argue or flirt, smashing statuettes in a seemingly endless process of trying to find the solid gold original. With its forced jauntiness and multi-thesp roster of caricatures, pic recalls (on a more modest scale) the now-outdated mayhem of romps such as “What’s New Pussycat” and “Casino Royale.” One definite bright spot is the score, which is playful and practically omnipresent. Warm-weather lensing in the region around Lyon is pleasant enough.
During the credits, and elsewhere, pic mocks the artifice of moviemaking by showing behind-the-camera technicians performing their roles. However, to paraphrase Coleridge on an ancient mariner: There’s watered-down humor everywhere and too much time to think.