French farce with a core of real feeling

Les Comperes is the latest comedy from Francis Veber, the humor specialist whose credits include directing ''The Toy'' and writing ''The Tall Blond Man With One Black Shoe'' and ''La Cage aux Folles.''

The story pivots on a teen-age runaway. Eager to find him and knowing his lackadaisical father won't succeed, his mother contacts two old flames - spurring their interest by telling each one (separately, of course) that he is the boy's true father. Thus a rough-and-ready reporter and a self-pitying poet find themselves in partnership - an odd couple made all the funnier by Gerard Depardieu and Pierre Richard, whose expert performances are the movie's backbone.

It's basically a farce, complete with ridiculous situations and slapstick bits. Yet there's an undercurrent of real feeling to the movie, which revolves around good parental urges - though in an unconventional and even irreverent way. Those deeper feelings come partly from the artistry of the stars and writer-director Veber and also from the emotional undercurrents the story had for them as they worked on it.

Indeed, during a recent New York sojourn, Veber told me he regards the movie as a ''letter'' to his own son - an indirect, comically devised expression of genuine paternal affection. ''It can be easier to say things through a comedy, a film, than to say them directly to a son with a life of his own,'' Veber said. Then he added, ''But it's important to say them somehow.''

During the same conversation, Depardieu - easily the biggest French movie star around - also indicated a personal connection with the movie. ''In my family when I was young, we never showed feelings,'' he told me, ''or spoke any love for each other.'' Thus he was touched by the emotions at the core of ''Les Comperes,'' and it shows in his performance, which is among his jauntiest and most appealing. He also liked the film's potential attraction for a wide audience. ''I'm not interested in being the greatest artist,'' he said. ''For me , acting is communicating with people, with many people. That's what acting is: people.''

That's what ''Les Comperes'' is, too.

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