Thursday 5 July 2012

Bits on the side: "The Players"

The Players, a post-PC portmanteau pic, created a minor fuss upon its release in its native France back in February, when onlookers wondered whether its lower-brow japes might cost star Jean Dujardin and co-director Michel Hazanavicius their shot at Oscar glory for The Artist - much as Eddie Murphy's campaign for supporting actor recognition for Dreamgirls was reportedly hurt by the concurrent release of Norbit. Somewhere along the line, the storm passed, allowing The Artist to enjoy its moment in the sunshine - and now, with this most cursory and contractually obliged of UK theatrical outings, British viewers have the chance to see for themselves why The Players really isn't worth making much of a fuss about.

Dujardin provided the idée originale for this rag-bag of shorts, skits and other bits, in which, under the direction of several notable contemporary French filmmakers, he and drinking buddy Gilles Lellouche (Point Blank, Little White Lies) play a variety of aging satyrs. The English release title seeks to jolly the project up, no doubt to capitalise on The Artist's broadly grinning success; actually, the original French title - the quasi-Chabrolian Les Infidèles - makes a better fit for a compilation that proves more dramatic than comic, often to the point of conservatism. Were it not likely to dent the film's slim commercial chances - or engender confusion with the Adrian Lyne film - The Unfaithful would be a more representative translation.

To take the comedy first of all, Hazanavicius gives us a very TV-ish vignette, part-Partridge, part-The Office, with Dujardin's monobrowed company guy enduring a long night of being cockblocked (and other humiliations) while attending a hotel conference; sharper, but scarcely less televisual, is the aside with Sandrine Kiberlain overseeing an ensemble of recalcitrant horndogs in a Cheaters' Anonymous group. Both are preferable to the Todd Phillips-y bookend, written and directed by Dujardin and Lellouche themselves, which sets two close friends and habitual womanisers to trawling topless pool parties in Vegas, and crawling their way towards a punchline altogether typical of a film that doesn't really know whether it's Arthur or Martha or what the hell it is.

The dramatic content is stronger, but undermined by the willy-waggling and finger-wagging going on. The Big Picture's Eric Lartigue directs Lellouche as a doubting Humbert Humbert getting badly bruised in his pursuit of an especially flighty latter-day Lolita (Clara Ponsot). Emmanuelle Bercot - crucially, the only female filmmaker invited to join in the, erm, fun - offers a story with the hard edges of a Raymond Carver short, or of somebody's lived experience, as Dujardin accepts a playful request from wife Alexandra Lamy to explore his past indiscretions, only to find it may have been better to keep the genie in the bottle. (Key line: "Sorry for being honest.")

Yet Short Cuts, the great Carver adaptation, had variation on its side; the repetition here - of players, of themes - quickly comes to nag away at you. Sex is reduced to the unachievable, the fleeting, or the toecurlingly naff, as in countless Robin Askwith vehicles over the years, and the conclusions are driven into the ground with a sledgehammer: men are pathetic, penis-driven misérables, more concerned with pleasuring themselves, or impressing their mates, than they are with the women they lust after, and a bird in the hand is always worth the two younger, blonder, bigger-boobed ones in the, if you will, bush. You'd buy it more if Frenchmen everywhere had taken a unilateral decision to renounce their mistresses in the five months since The Players went on release, but one suspects this somehow hasn't happened.

The Players opens in selected cinemas tomorrow, and is available on DVD from July 30th.

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