Considering the frosty reception given “Les Visiteurs” by even the most ardent Francophiles among U.S. arthouse devotees, an Americanized remake — especially one with the same director and two lead players — might seem a dubious enterprise, if not a fool’s errand. But “Just Visiting,” a slightly shorter and significantly less frenetic reprise of the 1993 comedy that broke box office records (and generated a 1998 sequel) in France, should prove more palatable to mainstream auds on this side of the ocean. Without major marquee allure to attract ticketbuyers — and, perhaps more importantly, with a coming-attractions trailer that isn’t at all enticing — pic isn’t likely to be a long-term tenant at many theaters. As cable and homevid fare, however, it may be a welcome guest in many homes.
Jean Reno, arguably best known to U.S. moviegoers for “Godzilla” and “Mission: Impossible,” reprises his portrayal of Count Thibault of Malfee, a noble knight who’s inadvertently transported from the 12th century to contemporary times by an unreliable wizard (originally Pier Vial, now Malcolm McDowell). And Christian Clavier, co-screenwriter of the original and the remake, returns as Andre, the dim-witted servant whom Thibault treats like a dog and feeds accordingly.
Thibault and Andre are dropped into a “time corridor” that leads to Chicago, where artifacts from the nobleman’s castle are on museum display.
For once, something got added in the translation. Maybe some credit should go to John Hughes, who helped co-writers Clavier and Jean-Marie Poirie retrofit their original “Visiteurs” script. The remake, like its predecessor, is top-heavy with broad slapstick, mistaken identities and gross-out gags about Andre’s undiscriminating eating habits. But “Just Visiting” is appreciably less frenzied as it strings together bits and pieces of comical nonsense, emerging as a one-joke comedy that is good for more than a few good laughs.
The gags, many of them recycled from “Visiteurs,” are fairly predictable: The time-travelers mistake a car for a dragon, assume small people are trapped inside a TV set, marvel at electricity and other modern-day wonders, etc. Even so, the wackiness quotient is maintained at a level that is modestly amusing, not gratingly obnoxious. And to their credit, the makers of the remake play fair: During the early 12th century scenes, which detail Thibault’s betrothal to a British noblewoman, they firmly establish that the knight and his squire speak English. That way, it’s not such a big deal when they’re able to communicate, in their own fashion, with modern-day Chicagoans.
Reno strikes a nice balance of pomposity and nobility, canniness and cluelessness, as Thibault tries to regain his equilibrium in the strange new world of 21st century Chicago. Clavier remains a pratfalling clown with an aggressively goofy streak. He’s easiest to take when he finds a kindred spirit in an overworked gardener, Angelique, played as a spirited neo-bohemian by Tara Reid.
A most pleasant surprise is Christina Applegate’s winning performances in two key roles: Rosalind, Thibault’s beautiful British fiancee, whose untimely demise triggers the noble knight’s time-traveling; and Julia, Thibault’s only living 21st century descendant, who’s sweetly oblivious to the infidelities of Hunter (Matthew Ross), her manipulative boyfriend.
Hunter wants to marry Julia for the money she’s certain to have if she sells her family’s ancestral home back in France.
Supporting players are a mixed bag. Ross is a standard-issue slick no-goodnik. As Amber, Hunter’s sexy babe on the side, Bridgette Wilson-Sampras is allowed to do little more than flash a bit of cleavage and roll provocatively across a desk. Fortunately, George Plimpton doesn’t even get to do that much as a befuddled museum director. Malcolm McDowell is largely wasted as the wizard who makes the mistake of sending Thibault and Andre forward in time. Character also makes the great leap to 21st century, but pic doesn’t give him anything funny to do after he arrives.
A co-production of Disney’s Hollywood Pictures and Gaumont, filmed on location in Chicago and at Shepperton Studios in England, “Just Visiting” makes sparing but effective use of Igor Sekulic’s first-rate f/x work to enhance some sight gags. Other tech values are solid.