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'Valet' of the drolls

French farce from 'La Cage' director is a smart, funny homage to the masters

French writer/director Francis Veber (best known stateside for "La Cage Aux Folles") has been creating delightful farces for nearly 40 years. He learned his craft from the Golden Age comedies of Billy Wilder, Howard Hawks and Preston Sturges - who made movies before "dumb" became a synonym for "funny." Veber's latest, "The Valet," is a showpiece of clockwork comic construction.

Shy, unassuming auto valet Francois (Gad Elmaleh) has an OK life with a few everyday problems. He's sharing a flat with his messy co-worker Richard (Dany Boon). His parents are pushing him to marry, but his grade-school girlfriend Emilie (Virginie Ladoyen) is focused on repaying the loan that's backing her new bookstore.

Then one day a stroll down the street turns his life upside down. A paparazzo snaps his picture alongside Pierre, a married tycoon (Daniel Auteuil) walking with Elena, Pierre's supermodel mistress (stunning Alice Taglioni).

To hide the affair from his suspicious wife, the industrialist pressures Francois and Elena to pretend they are lovers and spend the next month together for the benefit of the tabloid photographers. Elena agrees, in exchange for 20 million euros, which she'll return when he divorces. Francois goes along for the 32,450 euros needed to pay off his beloved Emilie's mortgage.

Emilie, unaware of the bargain, had thought of Francois as a friend rather than a potential fiance - until she sees Elena on his arm. Richard is dumbfounded to find that his nerdy pal is romantically linked with France's top model, who replaces him in Francois' shabby apartment.

A charming relationship develops between the celebrity and the nobody. She's always been stereotyped by her looks (so has he, but not in a good way), and they see each other for what they are: intelligent, sensible and dependable. They're not about to fall in love, but they are true friends in need, helping each other through their romantic dilemmas.

Pierre, observing their growing affection through private-eye photos, suspects that they have become lovers, and begins weeping at business meetings. Emilie, stung by jealousy, begins spending time with a slick wolf, while Elena's rival models plot to steal Francois away.

Veber keeps this ballet of silliness bouncing along effortlessly. The film's Parisian locations are gorgeous and the romantic shenanigans are elegantly engineered. Veber isn't just a fan of Wilder, Hawks and Sturges - he's a worthy successor. *

French with English subtitles. Produced by Patrice Ledoux, written and directed by Francis Veber, music by Alexandre Desplat, distributed by Sony Pictures Classics.