Hollywood thinks it loves French laffer remakes

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Throughout the history of American cinema, French characters have served as the butt of many onscreen jokes.

From Peter Sellers and Steve Martin's portrayals of a bumbling Inspector Clouseau to Sacha Baron Cohen's turn as a gay Camus-loving race car driver in "Talladega Nights: The Legend of Ricky Bobby," Gallic stereotypes abound in celluloid form.

But lately, Hollywood seems to be laughing with the French rather than at them. In the past two years, studios have been snapping up remake rights to a plethora of French laffers, creating a subgenre with enough muscle to rival Japanese horror and Hong Kong action redos.

Fox Searchlight's "I Think I Love My Wife," a nearly unrecognizable remake of Eric Rohmer's "L'amour l'apres-midi," which opens Friday, ushers in a new New Wave of French-inspired comedies. Although the Chris Rock vehicle, which has received mostly tepid reviews, offers a less-than-auspicious start to the trend, several promising projects loom on the studio horizon.

Baron Cohen will topline "Dinner With Schmucks," a Hollywood remake of Francis Veber's "Le diner de cons," which is set up at DreamWorks. Similarly, the Farrelly brothers are developing "The Valet," another Veber comedy being remade for American audiences, also for DreamWorks.

Like Veber, prolific French comedy actor-writer-director Alain Chabat translates easily. His French-language caveman hit "RRRrrrr!!!" was acquired by Warner Bros. Pictures and is being shepherded by the Monticeito Picture Co. It is close to attaching a big-name American helmer.

"Those two are the most universal comedy directors coming out of France right now," says Chabat's producing partner Stephanie Danan. "They seem to put their fingers on ideas and themes that are very universal."

In fact, Chabat formed the Beverly Hills-based WAM Films shingle four years ago to pioneer the burgeoning French-to-English comedy market. WAM develops all of Chabat's English-language remakes as well as non-Chabat French fare, including the late Bernard Rapp's "Un petit jeu sans consequence." Ang Lee will direct the English-language remake for Focus Features.

"We began this company because Alain had a lot of original ideas and a lot of remakes," Danan says. "We found that when we first started developing his original ideas, we were able to set them up quickly at the different studios. Then we opened it up by (producing) the remakes of his films and developing relationships with filmmakers in France, who trust that when we do a remake, we have the ability to (retain) the essence of the film."

So, why has Hollywood suddenly warmed to a culture it once mocked mercilessly?

"What's happening is that remakes are becoming bigger in general. Now more than ever Hollywood fears risk," Danan says. "If you have a successful remake, it peels away a layer of fear for executives. Doing a film that's already been made and done well, it provides a benchmark and provides a useful tool to attach talent and A-list writers."

Last month, Universal Pictures and Imagine Entertainment acquired the rights to remake "Mon meilleur ami," with Brian Grazer producing. Warners also is remaking the French comedy "Apres vous," with Billy Crystal attached to star.

But will American audiences find French-originated comedies funny? The history is mixed. The 1993 Jean Reno starrer "Les Visiteurs" was one of France's top grossers. But the English-language remake "Just Visiting," also starring Reno, flopped. Still, "Three Men and a Baby" serves as a shining example of the successful French-to-English translation.
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