Quick, name the three funniest comedy duos working today. Amy Poehler and Tina Fey? Dave and James Franco? Zac Efron and his abs? Hollywood is constantly putting pairs of funny people together, often with perfectly hilarious results, but outside the realm of animation (where the dynamic still thrives), the centuries-old tradition of comedy couples — well-matched cut-ups with a familiar chemistry and a seemingly inexhaustible capacity to amuse their fans — has all but vanished from American movies.
Thank goodness for burlesque duo Abel and Gordon. They are, simply put, the two funniest clowns working in cinema today. No, really: Dominique Abel is a Belgian-born, vaudeville-style human pretzel and gifted physical comic on par with Chaplin or Keaton, while real-life Australian wife Fiona Gordon is a Tilda Swinton-tall redhead with Olive Oyl elbows and an Easter Island profile. And with their latest film, “Lost in Paris,” they are bound to finally register on America’s radar — because who wouldn’t want a picturesque trip to the French capital that delivers more laughs than a nitrous oxide leak near the hyena compound? In fact, I’d go as far as to promise that “Lost in Paris” offers the three most delightful sight gags you’ll see on screen all year.
In real life, the duo’s preferred language is French, but for the sake of “Lost in Paris,” they don’t say much at all. Gordon plays Fiona, a shy, English-speaking librarian from the sort of too-cute, snow-covered Canadian town one might expect to find in a Wes Anderson movie. When Fiona was a girl, her adventure-seeking Aunt Martha (the late French screen icon Emmanuelle Riva) set off for Paris, leaving Fiona to dream about it ever since. All these years later, the introverted young woman has blossomed into a beautifully awkward adult, sticking out from the crowd like the misfit giraffe in one of those anthropomorphic-animal cartoons where an assortment of zoo critters live together in harmony: She’s taller, skinnier, and gawkier that everyone else around her, and yet, she steals your eye (and heart) in every frame.
One day, Fiona receives a letter from Aunt Martha beckoning her to Paris, so she packs her bright red knapsack and buys a ticket. It’s lucky the letter reached her at all, since Martha’s lifelong sense of independence is clearly starting to degenerate into senility (the loopy nonagenarian walked right past the mailbox and deposited the envelope in the trash). When Fiona eventually manages to find her aunt’s building, Martha has disappeared, trying to avoid those determined to stick her in a retirement home — and so the loony missing-persons search begins.
Fiona is happy to finally be in France, but astoundingly clumsy (delightful sight gag No. 1, in which she poses for a photo before the Eiffel Tower and winds up swimming in the Seine River), and before long, she’s broke, bedraggled and, yes, lost in Paris. Meanwhile, elsewhere in the city, a harmless hobo named Dom wants nothing more than a good meal. By chance — which in this context means an opportunity for an inspired series of humorous mishaps — Dom stumbles upon Fiona’s red bag, helping himself to her cash and her clothes (they look better on her, but charming enough on him).
As luck would have it, Dom and Fiona find themselves dining on the same peniche, one of those touristy restaurant-boats banked along the Seine. Next thing you know, the two strangers are sharing a tango and getting to know each other (delightful sight gag No. 2, in which the DJ has cranked the bass too high, and the diners jump each time the Gotan Project-playing speakers thump). For those who know Abel and Gordon’s 2005 competitive-dancing comedy “Rumba,” this dynamic duet makes for a wonderfully appealing reunion, although the dynamic is clearly different here, since their characters are meeting for the first time — and he’s spending her money and wearing her sweater.
Since its intention is to stimulate laughter, “Lost in Paris” withholds the romance for as long as possible, even going so far as to provide an amusingly ridiculous, full-uniform Canadian mountie as a potential rival to Dom’s shaggy-dog affections. Fiona actively distrusts the scamp, but can’t seem to shake him as she seeks out what she thinks is Martha’s funeral (delightful sight gag No. 3, in which a roomful of strangers react to an impromptu and completely inappropriate eulogy delivered by Dom). Fortunately, Martha is alive and well, so frisky in fact that she actually succeeds in seducing Dom at one point.
That elaborately improbable love scene is just about the only thing parents might find objectionable for younger viewers in this otherwise innocuous, all-ages comedy — one that’s so wholesome in all other respects that it feels like a complete anomaly in the American comedy landscape, where raunch is now the coin of the realm. Abel and Gordon have often peppered their films with innocuous sex and nudity (which can’t be any more damaging to young minds than the violence Tom and Jerry inflict upon one another), and here, though played for silliness, the geriatric hookup reveals the belies the film’s less-prudish Euro sensibility.
At any rate, “Lost in Paris” makes a poignant last hurrah for “Amour” star Riva, who passed away in January. She’s clearly having the time of her life getting to do a comedy so late in her career, lighting up the screen every time she appears, whether it’s soft-shoeing with an old flame (fellow legend Pierre Richard) on a park bench in Père Lachaise Cemetery or teetering for dear life from the upper rafters of the Eiffel Tower. Riva’s a welcome addition to the already golden dynamic between Abel and Gordon, who may just have found the formula to reach a larger audience by picking Paris as their backdrop. While earlier films “L’Iceberg,” “Rumba” and “The Fairy” were every bit as entertaining, the location here offers a real art-house hook: If they were to take a page from Woody Allen and hop from one Euro capital to the next, fans would be sure to follow.