Patrice Leconte has directed excellent serious films such as "Monsieur Hire" and "Man on the Train," but when it comes to humor he loses his bearings. His latest attempt at seriocomedy, "My Best Friend," is a premise in search of a film.
Francois, played by the always dependable Daniel Auteuil, is a divorced, middle-aged antique dealer with a wide circle of associates but no real friends. His contentious business partner Catherine (Julie Gayet) makes him a bet: If he can produce a best friend within 10 days, he can keep the Greek vase he bought for 200,000 euros at auction with company money.
Auteuil often plays men who savor the good things in life, so initially he seems miscast as someone who is friendless and doesn't even know it. But Auteuil and Leconte know what they're up to. If a mousy actor had played Francois, the premise would be all too obvious. Auteuil shows us how Francois's business skills – the ways he uses people – accounts for his isolation.
The film goes wrong when Francois tries to find a friend in order to win the bet. He goes to a support group. He walks into a restaurant and asks two men sitting together why they are buddies. He tracks down a classmate he hasn't seen since grade school. The inevitable rebuffs are so predictable that you wonder why Leconte even bothered staging these scenes. It's one thing for Francois to realize he's friendless; it's quite another thing for him to act as if he was born yesterday.
Ultimately Francois takes up with Bruno (Dany Boon), a gregarious cabbie who attempts to teach him how to make friends. His best advice: Be sociable, smiling, and sincere. Guess who becomes Francois's best friend?
Leconte goes out of his way to make it clear that both Francois and Bruno are heterosexual, just in case anybody got the wrong idea about their budding buddy-buddyism. He also makes Bruno out to be a nervous wreck beneath all the bonhomie. A trivia expert who idolizes Alex Trebek, he dreams of one day being a contestant on a quiz show. Guess what happens?
As with much spoofy French fare, "My Best Friend" seems set up for a remake by Hollywood. Robin Williams could play the cabbie, Ben Stiller would be the antique dealer. Maybe a part could be expanded for Cameron Diaz. I'm sure Alex Trebek would agree to a cameo appearance.
French filmmakers have often been at odds with the Hollywood juggernaut. With "My Best Friend," Leconte seems to be throwing up his hands. If you can't beat them, join them. Grade: C+
• Rated PG-13 for some strong language.