In “Day Off,” the fact that French kids don’t attend school on Wednesdays is the launch pad for an elaborate ensembler with neatly drawn, criss-crossing strands. Bittersweet venture marbled with plenty of situational humor feels overlong, but performances (particularly by the youngsters) are so good that the script overcomes its slight narrative bloat. Although the behavior depicted feels very French, the message — life could be simple if only it weren’t so complicated — is universal. Pic opened soft in a fiercely competitive field late March but should visit many a fest before settling in for a long healthy tube life.
Pascal Thomas, whose previous sleeper hit “La dilettante” was a surprise earner in the summer of ’99, starts the action on Tuesday afternoon as school gets out, shifting 15 minutes later to the all-important Wednesday. (French title translates as “Wacky Wednesday!” or “Wednesday — Nutty Day!”) Entire scenario takes place over 36 eventful hours.
Dead on his feet after an all night poker game, likable screw-up Martin Socoa (Vincent Lindon) is late to pick up his daughter, Victoria (Victoria Lafaurie), whom he hasn’t managed to see for six months. Martin’s ex-wife (Alessandra Martines), who’s late for a train, makes it clear that Martin is pathetically undependable.
Martin, who barely knows his precocious daughter, has a busy day ahead that’s not ideally suited to a young girl: He’ll be fired unless he collects on a tricky deal at his desk job as a realtor; his high-strung girlfriend (Catherine Frot) has decided to throw him — and his possessions — out of their new apartment; he’s due in court on a rather serious matter (his first wife is suing for back alimony); he’s way overextended on his chronic gambling debts; and everybody is fed up with his excuses.
Meanwhile, at police headquarters, the extremely pregnant wife (Anne Le Ny) of overworked head cop Pelloutier (Olivier Gourmet) has decided to take a day trip in connection with her work as a high-ranking naval officer. Under arrest for the umpteenth time is compulsive shoplifter Marie-Therese (Armelle, is a very funny turn).
A 3-year-old boy, whose distracted parents don’t realize he’s missing, is rescued by a group of grammar school students. Using subterfuges on their respective folks — who represent radically different approaches to parenting — two teen-aged couples borrow a boat and go for a pleasure cruise along the Loire River.
Toss in a Muslim family with a live sheep wandering around their apartment, an accommodating drug dealer who’s a devoted father of four, a wild all-kiddie fashion show, and a tense day at an off-track betting parlor — and the day builds to a strangely moving, compound denouement.
Deploying as populous a cast as “Nashville” and making splendid use of one of Gaul’s most photogenic port cities, pic could be called “Nantes.” Unafraid to put borderline poetic dialogue into the mouths of ordinary people, the movie celebrates the unfettered adventures of kids just under the radar of parental supervision, while suggesting that parents could learn a thing or two from their sometimes wiser offspring.
Narrative also contrasts gradations of urban and interpersonal strife with the easygoing pleasures of life lived in harmony with nature.
Visually, Nantes is exploited in such a way as to lend the breezy pic a built-in bounce. City has a “look” that’s as different from Paris as L.A. is from New York.