Turf: Film Review

Turf Film Still - H 2013

Turf Film Still - H 2013

Horse-racing comedy neither wins nor places, but doesn’t come in dead last, either.

Alain Chabat, Edouard Baer and Gerard Depardieu headline this latest high-concept comedy from "Camping" director Fabien Onteniente.

BERLIN -- It’s off to the races again for Gallic comic guru Fabien Onteniente, whose 2006 beach blanket buffoon-fest Camping remains one of the highest-grossing French comedies of the past decade. After following it up with the atrocious Disco and the equally abominable Camping 2, the veteran writer-director seems to be in slightly better form with his latest high-concept effort, Turf.

Sort of like a feel-good, slapstick version of HBO’s Luck -- minus the animal injuries but with plenty of bad dancing -- this overstuffed story about four losers betting it all on an underdog thoroughbred is at once charming and exhausting, offering up occasional laughs amid lots of nonsense, not to mention the requisite cameo by acting tsar Gerard Depardieu. Released locally mid-February, it looks to be less of a box-office front-runner than Onteniente’s previous efforts, though the film should clean up on TV and home video. Overseas action won’t stretch far beyond the usual Francophone stomping grounds.

After nearly winning a regional soccer championship several decades earlier, a quartet of BFFs – music hall dreamer Freddy (Edouard Baer), philandering chiropractor Le Grec (Alain Chabat), stay-at-home son Fifi (Philippe Duquesne) and p-whipped accountant Fortune (Lucien Jean-Baptiste) -- have settled down to a life of mediocrity, spending their days at a local PMU (the French version of OTB), where they hope to score the impossible trifecta but come up short each time.

When a corrupt horse trader (Depardieu) tricks them into buying one of his weakest fillies, they jump at the chance, only to learn that she’s more destined for the glue factory (or the meat market, current affairs notwithstanding) than the Kentucky Derby. But their luck changes when an incorrigible trainer (Sergi Lopez, decked out with sculpted mutton chops) decides to take Torpedo -- as the mare is ironically called in French -- under his wing, using his whispering and wizardry, along with his gorgeous jockey daughter, Babette (Vahina Giocante), to turn the pony into a steeplechase champion with a shot at some major prize money.

Heading exactly where you would expect it to, the script (credited to five writers, including the director and Chabat) is your typical comedie populaire blueprint, filled with unidimensional characters and labored plot points, all of which of course converge on the grand racing finale. It’s also very much a macho buddy comedy, where women are either there to be lied to or cheated on -- except for Babette, who becomes the object of Freddy’s affection, cheesy music cues included.

Yet despite being altogether run of the mill, Turf does suffer fewer drawbacks than other Onteniente oeuvres, thanks mostly to Asterix alumni Baer and Chabat, who play likable louses with decent hearts, dishing out a few good zingers and having a grand ol’ time doing so. Thankfully, this is also one of the filmmaker’s rare works to not feature regular star Franck Dubosc running around in his underwear, which makes it rather more mature than pretty much everything he’s done up until now.

Technically, the movie also feels slightly above par, with DP Jerome Robert capturing the various Normandy farms and racetracks in colorful widescreen compositions, and turning the ultimate race into a fairly suspenseful one, even if we all know how it's going to end. Like the Camping movies, the soundtrack is chock-full of funk and disco tracks that are so overused, they quickly become the musical equivalent of, well, beating a dead horse.

Production companies: Pathe, TF1 Films Production, Chez Wam, Scope Pictures
Cast: Alain Chabat, Edouard Baer, Lucien Jean-Baptiste, Philippe Duquesne, Sergi Lopez, Vahina Giocante, Gerard Depardieu
Director: Fabien Onteniente
Screenwriters: Fabien Onteniente, Philippe Guillard, Alain Chabat, Emmanuel Booz, Pierre Benichou
Producer: Florian Genetet-Morel
Executive producers: Alain Chabat, Christine Rouxel
Director of photography: Jerome Robert
Production designer: Jacques Rouxel
Costume designer: Jacqueline Bouchard
Music: Jean Yves d’Angelo
Editor: Beatrice Herminie
Sales Agent: Pathe International
No rating, 101 minutes