Agreeably entertaining in a wacky way but in essence spinning on a single, overworked idea, Karim Dridi’s “Foul Play” is the least substantial of his three pics to date. A black comedy about an unemployed thesp who takes out his career frustrations by acting out a part inreal life, the movie is typically performance-based and upfront in its emotions, set in a heightened reality somewhere in the lead character’s brain. Strong name cast and goofy idea could propel this into limited arthouse situations, though there’s none of the sheer atmospheric grit of Dridi’s debut, “Pigalle” (1994), or the social-racial resonance of his strongest work to date, the Maghrebi-themed “Bye-Bye” (1995).
Angelo (Philippe Ambrosini), who prefers the nickname Ange (angel), installs home satellite dishes between trying out for parts. At an audition for a commercial, he ends up clocking the director for insisting that fellow auditioner Concepcion (Rossy De Palma) take off her top. The pair go an all-night bender, though Concepcion keeps the friendship platonic.
Stardom seems to beckon when Ange gets the chance to audition for a major role in a gangster movie. After being turned down by a snooty casting director for not being convincing enough, he pretends to hold up her and the director in a parking lot. Already halfway round the bend, Ange is surprised he isn’t offered the role after he calmly takes of his mask and asks the terrified duo, “How was I?”
Seeking solace from the only person who could understand his career plight, Ange tracks down Concepcion, who is hired help for actress Arielle Dombasle (playing herself). Dombasle is in the middle of a quiet dinner party for some actor friends, and on the spur of the moment Ange decides to take them all hostage, venting his spleen on their professional success and taking the lead role in a real-life drama of his own making.
The film’s last third, with thesps Dombasle, Miou-Miou, Patrick Bruel, veteran Michel Galabru and relative newcomer Clotilde Courau playing themselves, is almost another movie. Dridi has considerable fun with the overlap between fiction and reality — drawing a range of playing from his lineup (Dombasle always cool and poised, Miou-Miou nervous) — but the star-laden segment tips the scales in a movie that, up to that point, has been a smallish, sometimes charming portrait of a born loser and an equally flaky would-be actress whose orbits collide.
With little more to add to the manic character of Ange by this stage, it’s Concepcion who progressively comes into her own in the final act, with Almodovar favorite De Palma subtly adapting her perf from a weird-looking ditz to a genuinely tragic character.
Despite its structural faults, the movie offers moments of genuine comedy, with Ambrosini well cast as the hopelessly confused Ange. Lensing is sans frills and, apart from the lead duo’s bender (shown in blurred, speeded-up motion), less hyper than the emotions on display. Final seg in Dombasle’s apartment is, however, dully and unattractively lit.