- The Washington Times - Friday, July 6, 2001

As the screenwriter of "La Cage aux Folles," Francis Veber probably can lay a valid claim to domesticating homosexual characters decisively for modern film audiences. It wouldn't be surprising to learn that film school theses are being composed tracing a lineage from Michel Serrault in "La Cage" to Sean Hayes in "Will and Grace."
A homosexual hoax and its subsequent misapprehensions are designed to keep a farcical pot bubbling in "The Closet," the latest comedy written and directed by Mr. Veber. While short of the cleverness and clockwork precision of his last contrivance, "The Dinner Game," the follow-up reveals Mr. Veber in chipper and agreeable form. Apart from one oddly prejudicial lapse, which leaves an ex-wife, a minor character, caricatured as an unforgivable shrew, the filmmaker manages to sow confusion about a suddenly perplexing case of sexual identity without playing favorites and mocking stooges in a shameless fashion.
In the starring role, Daniel Auteuil embodies the least demonstrative and energized character in the story. Named Francois Pignon, a name repeatedly invoked by Mr. Veber in his comedies, the protagonist enters as a mild-mannered nobody. An assistant accountant in a suburban Parisian firm that manufactures condoms, Pignon initially is summarized by his behavior during an annual photo shoot: He lets himself be elbowed out of camera range while shyly positioned on the fringe of the work force.
Before long, he overhears that his invisibility is about to be confirmed by a sacking. A gruff personnel manager, Felix Santini, played by Gerard Depardieu, needs to do some staff pruning and reasons that Pignon is the most expendable. This prospect adds to a Pignon losing streak: He can't get over the fact that his wife left him and their teen-age son avoids him. No one doubts that he's a decent fellow, but he just tends to vanish as a social being.
A new neighbor, Michel Aumont as Belone, turns up with an aggressive remedy. A retired industrial psychologist, Belone adopts the melancholy Pignon as a salvage project, in part because he nurses grudges of his own about heartless managements. He suggests a scheme for fighting fire with fire before Pignon's employment is terminated officially.
Belone's brainstorm involves faking a photo that appears to situate the nowhere guy among the brazen regulars at a gay nightclub. Sent anonymously, this scandal pic stops the termination process in its tracks. The company director, played by Jean Rochefort, reminds everyone that their sales are heavily dependent on homosexual customers. Once in circulation, the rumor appears to give the accused a remarkable upsurge in human interest as well as leverage. Instead of dull, insignificant Pignon, he becomes racy, devious Pignon. Belone advises Pignon to act no differently than he ever has. The goal will be achieved if other people let their imaginations run wild.
By and large, the plot depends on having Belone's advice prove astute. It even helps that there's a prominent skeptic from the outset: Michele Laroque as Pignon's immediate superior, head accountant Mlle. Bertrand. She suspects the scandal photo is a composite but finds it intriguing that the passive Pignon has decided to defend his job at any cost. This interest leads to a promising love affair, threatened at one point when Pignon stoops to jeopardizing Bertrand's job to protect his deception.
Because the hoaxer is not permitted to undergo a startling change of personality, a large burden of circumstantial turmoil shifts to Mr. Depardieu, whose Santini becomes the butt of a subsidiary hoax. Thierry Lhermitte, who played the malicious principal in "The Dinner Game," returns as a supporting character in "The Closet," a sales executive who thinks it amusing to discipline Santini by forcing him to make groveling amends to Pignon for the initial firing.
Mr. Depardieu's blustering Santini suffers a nervous breakdown while trying to play nice and cultivate a man he despises. The overbearing superior is reduced to a timid specimen. Though welcomed back to the firm and reassured after his ordeal, Santini would appear to be poorly suited for any executive position that might injure anyone's feelings.
The pace is breezy, the presentation glossy and the general outlook live-and-let-live. Maintaining a light touch prevents Mr. Veber from being held seriously accountable for his superficialities and evasions, although they're never far out of reach if one elects to quibble.
For example, Mr. Veber seems to strain credulity beyond his powers of manipulation when Pignon becomes a sheepish adornment to a gay-pride parade. Nevertheless, "The Closet" makes an enjoyable case for itself while formulating a well-meaning case for the dull and possibly unorthodox.

TITLE: "The Closet"
RATING: R (Occasional profanity and systematic sexual candor in a farcical context; frequent allusions to homosexuality and condoms; fleeting nudity and an interlude of simulated intercourse)
CREDITS: Written and directed by Francis Veber. In French with English subtitles
RUNNING TIME: 122 minutes

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