Wednesday, January 21, 2009

Hors de Prix (“Priceless,” 2006)

My wife says the romantic comedy is dead; they just don’t make good ones anymore. On reflection, of course, it’s clear that that is an overstatement. “Forgetting Sarah Marshall” came out just last year, and it was charming and hilarious. It is true, though that the genre is dominated by trite, disposable crap. The formula is pretty standard. Two people meet in some cute circumstance. They have obvious chemistry, and eventually they give in to it and hook up. Then there is some sort of misunderstanding that drives them apart. Then, triggered by obvious clues from the soundtrack, they realize that they were truly meant for each other and re-unite. Bring on the swelling score, the embrace, and the pull-back shot of the lovers in some romantic location, and everyone gets to go home and wait for their check. Hollywood just switches out actors and a few details and cranks these things out, and most of them suck.

Now to be fair to the romantic-comedy genre, I must point out that the same could be said of all Hollywood genres. Hollywood is not about making movies as much as they are about making money. Mostly they make crap, and they serve it up as fast as they can to a public desperate for the next distraction. By its nature, filmmaking requires the collaboration of so many artists and financiers that it is no wonder that most films are such a watered-down mediocrity, pandering to the lowest common denominator in the audience, that I can’t bear to watch. That’s why it is such a huge relief to me when I see something that doesn’t suck.

“Hors de Prix” is a sweet, funny Audrey Tautou movie in French that doesn’t suck. It doesn’t fail-to-suck in an epic, stirring way, the way “Lord of the Rings” didn’t suck. It fails-to-suck in the compact, straightforward way of well-done small films. Tautou plays Irene, a talented gold-digger who is one step short of being a prostitute. She lives glamorously off the largess of the older men she seduces, but she has nothing of her own and is always a day away from poverty. In quiet desperation, she works towards the goal of marrying one of these billionaires.

When Irene meets Jean (Gad Elmaleh), a hotel bartender, she gets the mistaken impression that he is one of the hotel’s wealthy guests. They hook up, but when Irene learns the truth, the pragmatic hussy leaves Jean without even looking back. Jean, meanwhile, is smitten, as Irene is a beauty beyond his wildest dreams. He follows her like a lost puppy, and in order to stay close to her, he becomes a gigolo. Sharing the same profession now, the two finally develop a real connection, and, well, you’ve probably seen enough of these movies to figure out the rest.

“Hors de Prix” never strays from the classic formula; it just executes that formula with grace. This romantic comedy delivers comedy that is understated and unforced, and romance that is actually romantic rather than trite. Now THAT is beyond price.

4.5 stars out of 5

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