It’s been six years since Jean Dujardin improbably charmed his way to an Oscar for a sparkling star turn in “The Artist,” and since then, even the French film industry has struggled to make optimum use of the funnyman’s outsize, old-school screen presence. Drug thriller “The Connection” was a solid enough play-it-straight vehicle, but by the time Dujardin showed up as a digitally modified little person in the dubious 2016 romcom “Up for Love,” Michel Hazanavicius’s beguiling silent-film pastiche itself seemed ancient history. That “I Feel Good” finally hands Dujardin a role he can wrap his arms around is perhaps the greatest of its many offbeat pleasures; he repays Benoît Delépine and Gustave Kervern’s ultimately sunny anti-capitalist comedy with a performance of x-factor charm, yes, but also wounded human complexity.
Dujardin’s urbane star quality isn’t the likeliest of matches for Delépine and Kervern, a cheerfully eccentric auteur duo who specialize in gently antic postcards from France’s socio-economic fringes: He’s a long way from the earthiness of their regular collaborator Gerard Depardieu, for example. Yet that makes the him ideal for the tragicomic character of Jacques, a middle-aged, mentally unstable ne’er-do-well with perennial delusions of grandeur — and a lousy business plan to make fellow losers feel good from the outside in, with a little help from cut-rate Bulgarian plastic surgeons. In his head, Jacques is the leading man of a considerably sleeker, more aspirational star vehicle than this rough-and-ready misfit tour of France’s rural southwest. The loopy, irony-tinged character study that results should give the filmmakers their biggest crowdpleaser to date at home; with a title that lays out clear marketing instructions to buyers, meanwhile, “I Feel Good” should secure healthy international distribution.
As in the “OSS” superspy parodies he headlined to star-making effect, Dujardin has a winning knack for playing the dashing dunce: Having spent much of his adult life restlessly hopping from one harebrained scheme to the next in an attempt to escape his working-class origins, Jacques has the outward swagger of the suave entrepreneur he believes he’s destined to be, but none of the inner smarts or savoir-faire to make the dream happen. That conflict is visually encapsulated in a terrific opening shot, as Jacques is introduced pacing purposefully, in a plush white spa robe and slippers, along the shoulder of a busy freeway.
The circumstances behind this apparent fall from grace trickle out gradually — though any grace he managed to attain, it seems, was strictly and briefly on credit. It turns out Jacques has been more or less AWOL for three years, since draining his parents’ life savings on an obvious internet investment scam. In the interim, they have passed away, while his long-suffering sister Monique (Yolande Moreau, in her third Delépine and Kervern joint) has seen her own marriage and finances crumble. Now managing an Emmaus commune — one of an international network of not-for-profit settlements providing accommodation and employment for the homeless — in the sticks, Monique contentedly shares the socialist worldview of her parents, though her charity is sorely tested when Jacques, flat broke and back from thin air, comes begging for shelter.
For her younger brother sees no point in a life not lived in pursuit of wealth, beauty and status, and believes a change in image to be the starting point of all success. With little more than a spray-on tan, some ill-fitting thrift-store tailoring and a pile of business cards cheaply printed in Comic Sans, Jacques fashions himself as a surgery-peddling life coach of sorts, selling Monique’s most vulnerable commune residents on outlandish promises of self-improvement — and setting up a fundamental clash of principles with his sister, who loves him too tenderly to bluntly say, “Quack physician, heal thyself.” Delépine and Kervern’s loose-limbed screenplay takes Jacques’s hustle to riotous farcical extremes — a road trip to Bulgaria in a succession of slipshod vehicles is on the cards, for one thing — yet the film’s political point of view is as crisply focused as its storytelling is amiably, colorfully shaggy. There’s a hint of Preston Sturges to their critical but loving scuppering of their hero’s quest, an honest concern with morality that rarely slips into moralizing.
Much of the credit for that tricky balance is also owed to the limber magnetism of Dujardin, who keeps this oddly lovable doofus more fragile than he will ever either know or admit, and his sweetly crackling chemistry with the ever-wonderful Moreau, who plays Monique with a heavy-gaited, world-on-her-shoulders mixture of concern for everyone around her and sporadic, silently guilty hope for her own ship to come in. Together, they’re the sympathetic human core that keep Delépine and Kervern’s tumble of zany asides and bright sight gags spinning, even in a denouement that, in tidily knotting its frayed ends, pushes a little too hard for emotional uplift — we don’t quite need the dialogue, for example, to point out that Jacques is “trying to sell beauty when it’s already here.” There’s enough genuinely benevolent spirit in “I Feel Good” to sell the sentiment anyway.