The Trouble With 'Harry'

Director Dominik Moll fails to sound the depths or stir the shallows in the homicidal black comedy 'With a Friend Like Harry.'

May 11, 2001|By Michael Sragow | Michael Sragow,SUN MOVIE CRITIC

In the homicidal black comedy "With a Friend like Harry," the title character is supposed to be a rich, affable guy who runs into a struggling high school friend, Michel (Laurent Lucas) and sets out to improve his life - with calamitous and magical results.

Michel, once an aspiring writer who wowed Harry with a phallic poem, "The Large Dagger in the Dark of Night," has succumbed to quiet desperation as he tries to provide for his wife Claire (Mathilde Seigner) and three daughters on a teacher's salary. Harry is willing to throw money - and his own dagger - at all of Michel's problems.

Director Dominik Moll may not realize that he's shaped this character, and Sergi Lopez's performance, so that Harry is an obsessive creep from the outset. He's not charming, he's ingratiating - and the movie defines the huge difference between the two.

Lopez gives Harry a smarmy insistence that embarrasses Michel, alarms Claire and clues in the audience to coming catastrophes, even when Harry is praising Michel's poetry to the sky. And what a sky there is in the French countryside! It's all deep purple and sequined stars. If "With a Friend Like Harry" holds audiences, I think it's less because of any psychological thrills than because of the frisson of seeing dirty doings pulled off in a pastoral getaway.

The film works best as a high-school reunion sort of nightmare. It's hilarious to see dapper, always air-conditioned Harry confront the beleaguered, sweaty Michel in the men's room of a highway rest stop. It's hard to tell what's funnier: Harry's hope that Michel will recognize him or his willingness to soldier on when Michel doesn't. Each man lives in a separate world; poor Michel can't know that he's a central part of Harry's fantasy life. At first, no one notices that Harry is more solicitous of Michel than he is of his sweet and voluptuous consort, Plum (Sophie Guillemin).

The opening half-hour plays like a refutation of the concept that money can't buy happiness. To director Moll and Harry, it can at least erase grief. Penny-pinching has wearied Michel and Claire and made them vulnerable to well-wishers or manipulators: Michel's pushy parents have tried to ease their way by redoing their decrepit cottage's bathroom in a vulgar shocking pink. Michel feels that when he deals with his parents in his own understated manner, he preserves his integrity. He doesn't realize that denying his frustration and anger makes him extra vulnerable to Harry, who has an unerring instinct for locating other people's vices - even those as benign as Michel's desire to accommodate everyone.

So far, so intriguing. But the movie's fascination ebbs as Harry takes drastic action in hopes of rousing Michel's hibernating creative animal. This picture takes the easy route of dispensing only with those characters you wouldn't mind parting with for the rest of the movie. What's worse, after teasing the audience with the prospect of becoming a nasty, satisfying thriller, it ceases to be a thriller at all. "With a Friend Like Harry" is ultimately a queasy little parable about an artist's need for ruthlessness, decked out in suspense-film clothing: shrouds.

Forget the taut construction of, say, Hitchcock's "Strangers on a Train." Dramatically, "With a Friend Like Harry" floats all over the place. Sure, it touches down, lightly, on tantalizing topics, such as the roots of a certain kind of florid art in adolescence, and the game of mix and match that an artist like Michel plays with experience. The aunt-like bonding of Plum with Michel's daughters feels authentic, as does Claire's intuitive distrust of Harry. Filmmaker Moll is talented enough to keep us entangled in his psychological and artistic motifs, but he doesn't have the thriller-maker's instinct to stick a fuse in them and set them off. The movie neither sounds depths nor stirs the shallows.

The push-pull between Harry and Michel resembles the core relationships in the novels of Patricia Highsmith, who provided the source books for both "Strangers on a Train" and two versions of "The Talented Mr. Ripley" (first filmed in France as "Purple Noon"). As Terrence Rafferty wrote in "Fear and Trembling," his brilliant New Yorker essay on the novelist, "Most of Highsmith's books depend on some sort of guilty recognition, a startled, reluctant acknowledgment of qualities we hadn't known we had or desired until we saw them reflected in someone else. ... People attach themselves to others out of morbid fascination, childlike hero worship, or plain erotic attraction - or, often, all three - and Highsmith tracks her characters as they track each other, as if they were following a logic so mysterious and convoluted that it can only lead them back to themselves."

You can find those elements in "With a Friend Like Harry." But it critically lacks Highsmith's sixth sense for drawing you into the heart and soul of sociopaths, then jolting you with the realization that things are much worse even than they seem. The energy leaks out of this movie when the life seeps out of Harry's first victims. And when Moll isn't taking in the sky, his images starve you for beauty. All your eyes want to chase down is the overripe Plum.

`With a Friend Like Harry'

Starring Sergi Lopez

Directed by Dominik Moll

Released by Miramax Zoe

Rated R for violence and fleeting nudity

Running time 117 minutes

Sun score: * * 1/2

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