The French movies that typically get American distribution are almost exclusively art house fare, but as anyone who ever spent time in France can attest, the Gallic moviescape is very different. Once you eliminate the preponderance of Hollywood blockbusters and the occasional "serious" offering, usually starring Gérard Depardieu, you're left with primarily low-grade romantic comedies and action pictures – the sort that rarely get shown outside France, let alone in America.
So it was with some curiousness that I approached the wildly popular French hit "OSS 117: Lost in Rio," a spoof of 1960s spy thrillers set in 1967 that is getting a heavily promoted American release – something that's unusual for this type of film.
It goofs on everything from Hitchcock to Mel Brooks to Austin Powers and James Bond movies. If you have a good memory for the old Dean Martin "Matt Helm" series, or "North by Northwest" or "Harper," if zoomy camerawork and split screens and long sideburns and the frug are your thing, then "OSS 117" will likely make sense – or at least a pleasant kind of nonsense – to you. For me, the film was fascinating chiefly as a pop cultural artifact. Every country has its own way of being gaga. "OSS 117" takes the cake.
The clueless hero, Hubert Bonisseur de la Bath, aka Agent OSS 117, is played with deadpan aplomb by Jean Dujardin, who also starred three years ago in the equally popular "OSS 117: Cairo Nest of Spies." (The OSS character is derived from a series of popular, and unspoofy, postwar French movies and books.) American moviegoers are accustomed to comic takeoffs on the French from a non-French perspective, as in Peter Sellers's Inspector Clouseau, so watching OSS bumble his way through a series of cloak-and-dagger misadventures has the unfamiliar tang of Gallic self-mockery. And what is being mocked is often surprising.
Not only is OSS enraptured by his own romantic prowess, he's also borderline racist. Are the filmmakers suggesting that racism, specifically anti-Semitism, is a national trait? OSS is partnered with a beautiful Israeli secret service agent (Louise Monot) to track down errant Nazis in Brazil, and an alarming amount of his badinage is devoted to running down Jews. There are also numerous gibes directed at French World War II collaborators, and, for equal time, a loutish, foul-mouthed CIA agent with a laughably shabby French accent.
The director and co-writer Michel Hazanavicius explained in an interview that, since OSS "confronted Arabs in the first film, it was healthy to change things and it fell on the Jews." Say what? He may not realize how difficult it is to create black comedy without crossing over into offensiveness. (Mel Brooks doesn't always hit the mark, either.) When the film's top Nazi bad guy, played by the German actor Rudiger Vogler as if he were a renegade from a roadshow production of "Inglourious Basterds," pleads for his life by paraphrasing Shylock's "Hath not a Jew eyes?" speech, the film makes a quick U-turn into a comic netherworld it can't begin to plumb.
The movie is on surer satiric footing when it's simply cataloging OSS's sleek doofusness. With his leer and rolling eye and pomaded hair, OSS is a walking caricature of self-satisfied lust. His best line: "Some people have adventures. I'm an adventure." When he parades poolside in Rio, a bevy of lovelies ogles him as he mounts the diving board platform. He turns out to have a fear of heights.
All this is mighty silly, but there's something to be said for watching a French movie that, for a change, isn't about l'amour, existential angst, or madness. It's oddly reassuring to know that Hollywood isn't the only place where dithery, disposable spy spoofs are manufactured. Grade: B- (Unrated.)
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