A funny-looking woman named Fiona walks into a hotel and offers to grant Dom, the equally awkward night clerk on duty, three wishes in “The Fairy,” the latest fest- and arthouse-friendly lark from semi-absurdist comedians Dominique Abel, Fiona Gordon and Bruno Romy. The fact that Dom can only decide on two wishes — he’d like a scooter, plus unlimited gas for life — and the near-certainty that Fiona isn’t magic at all do little to slow the budding romance in this deliriously droll confection, which hones the misfit charm of their earlier features, “L’iceberg” and “Rumba,” to find just the right balance.
The Belgo-Canadian-French trio, who specialize in pantomime and circus-style theatrics, have a clownlike knack for finding humor in the everyday. Ketchup bottles, bicycle chains and folding chairs become instruments of uproarious inspiration — a reminder of the degree to which good, old-fashioned physical comedy has faded from cinema. But unlike Peter Sellers, Jacques Tati and others who’ve excelled in this department, Dom and Fiona come as a pair, bringing a welcome dash of romance to the proceedings.
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These two were clearly meant for one another, their gawky faces and knobby joints suggesting the string-bean silhouettes of Ichabod Crane and Olive Oyl. Whether or not auds are familiar with their previous features, they immediately sense the couple’s potential when Fiona (Gordon) shows up at Dom’s (Abel) front desk. Third wheel Philippe Martz (a regular of their films) has already laid the comedic groundwork, playing an English tourist who none-too-subtly tries to get around the hotel’s no-pets policy, but there’s something special between the other two, even if Dom is slow to pick up on it.
Dom isn’t exactly dim, but there’s an endearingly distracted quality about him. For starters, he easily misses the obvious clues that Fiona has escaped from a local mental hospital, and even after figuring it out, he doesn’t see that as an obstacle to their budding romance. Fiona, meanwhile, must be extremely crafty to keep up her side of the relationship, which she does by granting his scooter-related wishes and conspicuously shoplifting a new outfit for their first proper date.
Embracing a fair amount of improv and exploration in their scripts, the creative team invent endless ways to use their bodies. Whenever the narrative momentum starts to lag, there’s always room for a spontaneous dance scene, the first of which unfolds in a skinny-dipping daze and semi-explains Fiona’s overnight pregnancy. “The Fairy” improves upon their usual formula by building a tighter, more coherent story on which to hang the setpieces, with seemingly random details (such as the appearance of a woman’s rugby team) and callbacks to earlier jokes (including co-director Romy’s slapstick turn as a near-blind bartender) ensuring a steady stream of laughs.
One especially amusing sequence polishes “Rumba’s” hilarious rear-projection gag, as Fiona and Dom chase after their baby, which Fiona carelessly placed on the trunk of a moving car. Still, nothing can top Dom’s crazy plan to break Fiona out of the hospital — a sequence that not only brings down the house but also serves to advance the plot in the process.
While “The Fairy” clearly takes advantage of a larger budget and scope, the filmmakers have retained the lo-fi tricks that have always made their sensibility so amusing. Tati did the same as his career progressed, though he spent more with each picture, until he finally bankrupted himself building “Playtime’s” elaborate city set. In “The Fairy,” Abel, Gordon and Romy have all of Le Havre as their playground. And now that the they’ve established the ideal format for their brand of comicbook-style humor, one can’t help but wish they show the good sense to keep it at this level going forward.