A clever, funny spy spoof has been a rare bird recently. This summer's Get Smart was flat-footed, and the less said about such recent outings as Steve Martin in The Pink Panther, Rowan Aktinson in Johnny English and Mike Meyers in Austin Powers in Goldmember the better.
So who would have guessed that France would come through? Contrary to popular opinion, the French do have a sense of humor, though most comedic imports that reach our shores are relationship farces.
Now, voila! Here's OSS 117, a zippy, wry spy spoof from Michel Hazanavicius, set in the exotic but troubled Egyptian city of Cairo, in the mid-1950s.
Ah, but first, in classic tradition, we must establish our master spy, the dashing Hubert Bonisseur de La Bath, alias French secret agent OSS 117 (Jean Dujardin). In a black-and-white prelude, he is deep within the roots of all 20th-century spydom, an artfully foggy Berlin airstrip, in 1945. Once airborne, he and his partner Jack Jefferson (Philippe Lefebvre) easily rout the Nazis, and seal their victory with some uproarious conjoined laughter.
We jump ahead to 1955, and find our man in Rome, in a colorful boudoir, wrapped up in fur, satin and an Egyptian princess (Aure Atika). Cairo's a mess, she pouts, and sure enough it is. It's a poisonous nest of international interests ranging from the colonial French to the English, the Soviets, the Americans, the Germans, and yes -- curiously -- even the supposedly happy natives, who have broken out in angry Arab nationalism. When Jefferson goes missing, OSS 117 -- now known as Lucien Bramard -- is on the next plane to Egypt to take his cover as a poultry processor.
Bramard is instantly recognizable as the archetypal smug spy, who preens his way through social embarrassment, mishaps and assorted bumbling with a charming obtuseness. Like his forefather Clouseau, he's virtually oblivious to the mess he leaves in his wake, perceiving only his own remarkable skills.
Thus he means no harm when he complains to his comely Egyptian minder, Larmina (Bérénice Bejo), that "the problem with Arabic is it's hard to read." Or when he dispenses wallet-card photos of the French president as tips. He is simply the fastidious, blinkered colonial, perpetually miffed that the natives can't appreciate the modernity the conquering country offers. After learning more of Islam's strictures, he soothingly tells Larmina: "Yours is a very strange religion. I bet you'll grow tired of it."
Yet while the barb here points at Bramard, of course (with a little forward-flash to us all about how little such attitudes have changed), Dujardin makes his fussy little man sympathetic.
Dressing up contemporary humor with retro satire may be the perfect way to make a comedy spoofing the West's unfailing efforts to navigate through the Middle East. (You can brush up on your history and see that this film is rooted in the very real troubles of mid-century Egypt, which lends the gags a certain sharpness.)
But OSS 117 is also a light, fresh spoof that doesn't wink too frantically and is judicious with its more absurd scenes. (Flashbacks to Hubert and Jefferson romping on the beach are hilariously demented.) There are fantastic clothes, a bright wide-screen presentation and, naturally, a kicky crime-jazz score. The French may have ultimately bungled North Africa, but they got this spoof of it right. In French, and some Arabic, with subtitles.
Starts Fri., July 25. Harris