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PARIS — Will lightning strike twice for Dany Boon, writer-director and star of Welcome to the Sticks, which became the highest-grossing French film in history when it nabbed $194 million during its domestic release? If the laugh count in his new Franco-Belgian border comedy Nothing to Declare (Rien a declarer) is any indication, the answer may be non. But Boon nonetheless delivers a fairly entertaining spin on what made Sticks tick, highlighting the cultural differences that divide us and the emotions that bring us together.
It may never be entirely clear how Sticks managed to draw more than 20 million Frenchies into movie theaters (often multiple times) throughout 2008. Sure, it was better than a lot of homemade comedies, and far from the Paris-set sex farces that tend to grace local screens. But to go from there to being second only to Titanic in all-time French box-office cume?
One theory, which Nothing to Declare tries to reiterate on a broader scale, is that at a time when Frenchmen had (and still have) a hard time looking upon their nation with pride, Sticks smartly focused on the positive aspects hidden behind cruel regional stereotypes. Specifically, it tackled the idea that all inhabitants of France’s northern most province, the Nord-Pas-de-Calais, were uneducated, unemployed and often unfettered when it came to hitting the wine bottle. But as the film revealed, the “Ch’tis” were funny, friendly and a lot like other French people (though still better drinkers).
Boon presents a similar vision in his latest romp, though he now includes Belgians in the mix, setting his period piece on a fictional border-crossing between the two countries that will be rendered obsolete once the European Common Market kicks in on January 1, 1993. For customs officials Mathias Ducatel (Boon) of France and Ruben Vandevoorde (Benoit Poelvoorde) of Belgium — two arch enemies who endlessly insult each other’s homelands — this means a new assignment in which they’re forced to team up to prevent drugs and other contraband from infiltrating their neighboring territories.
The fact is that Mathias hates everything about the “fry eating” Ruben except for his gorgeous sister, Louise (Julie Bernard), with whom he’s been maintaining a secret affair that he’d like to make public if it weren’t for Ruben’s absolute disgust of everything the “cheese eating” Mathias stands for. He therefore decides to warm up to Ruben and win his family over, even if it means giving up some of his Frenchiness in the process. But Mathias can only stand being called a “camembert” so many times, and the task puts a strain on both his relationship with Louise and his own sanity.
Making jokes about Belgians are the French equivalent of making Polish jokes in the U.S., so many of them — especially those involving the accent (which Boon imitates brilliantly) – will be lost on non-French-speaking audiences. Still, compared to some of the cleverly devised set pieces in Sticks, there’s less laughter to go around, and the insults exchanged between the two teams of customs officials grow redundant after the first round. A side plot involving a pair of conniving cafe owners (Karin Viard, Francois Damiens) adds little in terms of yucks, although Bouli Lanners (Eldorado), who plays a drug running knucklehead, offers at least one drop-dead hilarious scene.
Perhaps most disappointing is the misuse of a comic talent like Poelvoorde, who in films like 1992’s Man Bites Dog or the recent Kill Me Please has shown a knack for playing nut jobs with an offbeat and cynical sense of humor. Unfortunately, Ruben is a one-trick pony whose anti-French diatribes become increasingly tedious, especially when Poelvoorde resorts to shouting them at spectacular decibels. Boon gives Mathias considerably more nuance, saving some of the better gags (including a well-orchestrated family dinner) for himself.
With a more commercial tone than most French comedies, including catchy widescreen compositions by Pierre Aim (Jaffa) and a very Danny Elfman-esque score by Philippe Rombi (Potiche), there’s enough here to garner the film a wide following, though probably not one on the level of Sticks. In the end, Nothing to Declare offers the same heartfelt message as its predecessor: Love and friendship can help bridge the cultural divide. It should have found a funnier way to say it.
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