The 1998 comedy hit In and Out fell apart when the high school teacher played by Kevin Kline discovered he was gay. It would have been more subversive if a man who loved musical comedy and Barbra Streisand in particular - and knew how to shake his booty - turned out to be straight. Instead, the movie became genial propaganda about the charm and sheer niceness of homosexuals.
Francis Veber's spiffy new comedy The Closet touches on a lot of the same issues yet is more satisfying and droll than In and Out. Its drier wit plays better for a quick 82 minutes. It doesn't sentimentalize anyone - especially not the anti-hero, a paralyzingly bland accountant named Francois Pignon (played by Daniel Auteuil).
Pignon's path could be called "Out and In." He's on the brink of being fired from a condom-manufacturing company. His ex-wife and son won't take his calls when he's crying out for help. He's ready to jump off his terrace.
But a new next-door neighbor named Belone (Michel Aumont) comes up with a solution. Belone, a retired industrial psychologist, guesses that if he doctors some photographs and manufactures a gay life for Pignon, the poor man will hold on to his job. Mailed anonymously to his workplace, the documents are interpreted by the company director (Jean Rochefort) as a threat to the company: Fire this gay man and lose your enormous homosexual clientele.
Pignon's sudden gayness makes him fascinating. His female office-mates analyze everything from his walk to his manner of looking at them sideways. They view his self-effacing manner as mysterious and alluring. One, a mature beauty named Mlle. Bertrand (Michele Laroque), suspects almost from the outset that Pignon is putting on an act.
The brilliance in the concept is that Pignon never does put on an act: Under Belone's advice, he behaves the way he always has. What really comes out of the closet is most people's feelings and assumptions about homosexuality; the best title might have been "Gay Expectations."
The opposite of a drag comedy like Tootsie, which grows more hilarious the more explicit it gets about the difficulties of parading as a woman, or even of a drag comedy like La Cage Aux Folles, which reaches its comic peak when a drag queen must be Straight for a Day, The Closet rests on Pignon's firmly held deadpan. He lets everyone else look for gay signals in his behavior.
Tootsie and La Cage Aux Folles are, of course, milestone farces; The Closet is too modest and contained to be in their class. Veber wrote La Cage Aux Folles, but as the writer and director of The Closet, he's content to stay within the contours of polished situation comedy. Luckily, the situation here is a comic bobsled run, and Veber gives his cast enough surprises to keep it curling. The movie's steady good humor and respect for character is pleasing - even energizing. (The exception is Pignon's ex-wife, who is set up to be cold, and, guess what, is.)
When you see the actors assemble for the opening vignette - a company group portrait - it's like a French comedy reunion that includes Rochefort and Laroque (both from, among other films, The Hairdresser's Husband) and Thierry Lhermitte (The Dinner Game) and Gerard Depardieu. They all come through for Veber, especially Depardieu, as a macho personnel manager and rugby coach, and Lhermitte as his dapper pal. In a practical joke that backfires in more ways than one, Lhermitte makes Depardieu paranoid about being fired in the company's revised homosexual-friendly climate and goads him into developing a friendship with Pignon.
At first, the humor comes from Depardieu's Neanderthal nonchalance, not just at the office but at home, where he treats his wife with an offhand expectation of household services that would make Archie Bunker look like Mr. Sensitive. Then it comes from his dazed and confused reaction as his impervious facade slips away. Is he buying the suggestion that there was always something homoerotic about hanging out in the locker room? Is he developing a crush on Pignon? Or is he simply discovering that he has a feminine side - instead of what actor Denis Leary would call two masculine sides? It may be a small supporting role, but Veber helps Depardieu turn it into his most layered performance in years.
Auteuil is engaging as Pignon. It's good to see this overly serious actor play his trademark melancholy for laughs, but he's still the straight man for the rest of the movie. Of course, given the setup, it would have taken a comedian of genius to fulfill Veber's demands and still stretch the picture the way Michel Serrault did La Cage Aux Folles, or imbue it with the euphoria that Kline gave to parts of In and Out. Veber's next project is an American version of his previous French aging-yuppie romp, The Dinner Game. It's set to star ... Kevin Kline.
Starring Daniel Auteuil and Gerard Depardieu
Directed by Francis Veber
Released by Miramax
Running time 82 minutes
Sun score *** 1/2