Smart Ass (La creme de la creme): Film Review

Wild Bunch
Business-school nerds get a chance to improve their sex appeal by association in this uneven film.

French up-and-comers Thomas Blumenthal, Alice Isaaz and Jean-Baptiste Lafarge star in Kim Chapiron's sex-themed dramedy set at an elite business school.

PARIS -- If there’s one lesson to be learnt from French-Vietnamese director Kim Chapiron’s Smart-Ass (Crème de la crème), it’s that kids in business school, like people just about everywhere else, only have two things on the brain: money and sex -- and not necessarily in that order.

The idea behind hot young screenwriter Noe Debre and Chapiron’s clever if narratively unbalanced screenplay is that a small group of elite business students applies what they learn about money -- and more specifically the laws of supply, demand and market value -- by day to the sex they’d like to have at night. The resulting prostitution ring that the protagonists run, which is based on the idea that, for girls, the desirability of nerdy boys will go up if they’ve slept with other hot girls, is really an excuse for the filmmakers to look at romance in the era of divorced parents, 24/7 access to Internet porn and a general lack of role models where love, rather than sex, is concerned.

If the suggestion of piquancy in its premise is marketed right, Smart-Ass could be a cult hit in France and Belgium, where the film opens April 2, with some niche theatrical deals possible offshore. Remake rights could also be of interest.

The addiction to porn and his right hand of French-Tunisian student Jaffar (Karim Ait M’Hand) is as big as the maladroitness with girls of his roommate, the Jewfro-sporting Dan (Thomas Blumenthal, think a French Jonah Hill). At a wild faculty party they try to chat up girls but it’s a disaster for both, with Jaffar finally only managing to make a move on Kelly (Alice Isaaz, a Gallic variation on Ellen Page), who turns out to be a lesbian.

With the help of the Versailles-born, handsome and devious Louis (Jean-Baptiste Lafarge, appropriately amoral), Kelly and Dan finally set up a “Cigar Lovers Club” on campus, where the school’s pretty girls, convinced by the smooth-talking Kelly, get paid to sleep with the nerds, supplied by Dan, so that the boys’ sex-appeal quota skyrockets.

Debre, a protégé of France’s star screenwriter Thomas Bidegain (A Prophet, Rust & Bone, Our Children) and Chapiron (Sheitan, Dog Pound) have fun with their premise and make the economical theory behind the idea of a boy's sexual market value sound pretty logical and straightforward. That said, they’re clearly on the boys’ side, with their only major female figure a gauchely drawn lesbian and next to no time spent on explaining why the school’s resident babes would sleep with ugly geeks for money, since most of them come from well-off backgrounds and all of them could get the alpha-males of the school to do their bidding for free.

Though infused with more humanity than the screenplay seems to call for by spunky up-and-comer Isaaz (The Date Coach), Kelly is indeed the film’s most problematic character. Her name is the source of an odd, Beverly Hills 90210-themed running joke for which the characters, born in the early 1990s, seem much too young. Her unusual economical background is also awkwardly telegraphed by the trio’s entirely perfunctory visits to Louis and Dan’s families, so that they have to visit her parental home as well. A third-act revelation about her character also feels too opportunistic and facile a way to tie all the romantic loose ends together and makes the already vaguely outlined character even more of a walking contradiction.

Chapiron also doesn’t know what to do with Jaffar, who literally makes a splash in the masturbatory opening sequence but who, rather oddly, isn’t part of the film’s central pimping triumvirate and who seems to randomly zig-zag in and out of the main narrative. That said, Smart Ass generally manages to avoid American Pie-like hilarity and the sex is more talked about than shown -- even if there’s some non-sexual nudity-- and this restraint is a shrewd and unexpected choice that works well and manages to turn the sobering events in the third act into something with some emotional weight.

Acting from the ensemble is convincing and the score by Ibrahim Maalouf (Yves Saint Laurent) and the clever placement of a song by the former First Lady of France, Carla Bruni-Sarkozy, further help smoothen some of the story’s rough edges.

Opens: April 2 (in France)
Production companies: Stone Angels, Moonshaker, Wild Bunch
Cast: Thomas Blumenthal, Alice Isaaz, Jean-Baptiste Lafarge, Karim Ait M’Hand, Marine Sainsily, Marianne Denicourt, Bruno Abraham Kremer, Xavier de Rosnay, Gaspar Auge, Louis Brondinsky, Mouloud Achour, Jonathan Cohen, Pierre-Ange Le Pogam
Director: Kim Chapiron
Screenwriters: Noe Debre, Kim Chapiron
Producers: Benjamin Elalouf
Director of photography: Crystel Fournier
Production designer: Christian Vallat
Music: Ibrahim Maalouf
Costume designer: Justine Pearce
Editor: Benjamin Weill
No rating, 90 minutes.

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