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In 2008, French comic Dany Boon’s second feature, Bienvenue chez les Ch’tis (Welcome to the Sticks), turned into a local box office sensation, raking in more than 20 million admissions and falling just shy of Titanic to become the second-highest-grossing film in Gallic history. A cleverly conceived, fish-out-of-water comedy — think My Cousin Vinny, except with the north and south reversed — the story followed a forlorn postman from the Midi who gets relocated to the Nord-Pas-de-Calais region, where he comes face to face with the dialect and antics of the “Ch’ti” people living there.
The actor-director followed that hit up with a string of high-concept affairs — Nothing to Declare, Superchondriac, R.A.I.D. Special Unit — that, while mildly to largely successful in theaters, showed a diminishing level of returns when it came to laughs. He now heads back to his roots with La Ch’tite famille, which sounds a lot like a sequel to his hit from a decade ago but is actually something closer to a spinoff project. Call it the second film in what can now be labeled “The Dany Boon Ch’ti Universe.”
Funny in spats but overextending the Ch’ti concept to an ad nauseam degree, Famille, which was written by Boon and Sarah Kaminsky (Gauguin), has the comic once again playing a lovable, heavily accented man from the north — though in this case he is one who has completely buried his origins under a layer of Parisian smugness.
As one of the City of Light’s hottest furniture designers, Valentin (Boon) is about to celebrate a retrospective of his work at the Palais de Tokyo art museum. Along with his partner and girlfriend, Constance (Laurence Arne), he also runs a fancy design firm that is known for making minimalist, barely usable chairs and tables that the elite all want to own.
But little does anyone know that Valentin, who claims in the press to be an orphan, actually hails from a family that runs an auto salvage lot and spends their time drinking, fighting and speaking in a slang that requires subtitles, even for French people. When they all decide to show up for his big show — under the pretext that they want to celebrate the 82nd birthday of his beloved mother (Line Renaud) — Valentin’s true identity is revealed. A few scenes later, he’s hit by a car and wakes up with a heavy case of amnesia: His Parisian persona is forgotten and the Ch’ti in him returns.
The rest of the film involves Constance and her dubious father (Francois Berleand) trying to set Valentin right, and some of the better scenes offer up a kind of Ch’ti Pygmalion, with Boon playing an Eliza Doolittle who has to learn proper French for the second time. There’s a pretty hilarious sequence where Valentin, whose accident has left him with the mindset of a teenager, works with a speech therapist to get his diction back. Another funny bit involves etiquette lessons that Valentin can’t handle. Much less amusing is a repeated gag that consists of different people falling off a chair.
In terms of plot, it’s easy to see where this is headed, and the idea of accepting one’s roots is hammered into our skulls way too many times by the last act. Likewise, the romance between Valentin and Constance feels both awkward and a bit telegraphed, with the latter’s behavior hard to gauge: In one scene she can’t stand Valentin and in another she’s strangely sympathetic to him. Eventually she embraces her own inner Ch’ti, with the obvious idea that true love will not be put off by a ridiculous accent.
Boon definitely takes his concept as far as it can go and then some, nailing a few solid laughs along the way but running out of steam after the midway mark. Still, his sixth feature should play well with French audiences, who love comedies that can both poke fun at, and celebrate, regional differences, especially when such regions invoke the Gallic equivalent of redneck humor. Overseas action may be best in Francophone territories, as many of the language jokes are had to translate.
Tech credits are polished, with a playful score by Michael Tordjman and Maxime Despres that keeps things moving and production design by Herve Gallet that comes up with some witty concepts for Valentin’s unusable pieces of furniture.
Production companies: Pathe, Les Productions du Ch’timi, TF1 Films Productions, 26DB Productions
Cast: Dany Boon, Line Renaud, Laurence Arne, Valerie Bonneton, Guy Lecluyse, Francois Berleand, Pierre Richard
Director: Dany Boon
Screenwriters: Dany Boon, Sarah Kaminsky
Producer: Jerome Seydoux
Executive producer: Eric Hubert
Director of photography: Denis Rouden
Production designer: Herve Gallet
Costume designer: Laetitia Bouix
Editor: Elodie Codaccioni
Composers: Michael Tordjman, Maxime Despres
In French, Picard
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