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MAN ON THE TRAIN (L’HOMME DU TRAIN)

Patrice Leconte’s new film is an elegant, amusing odd-couple divertissement that also reflects on the paths not chosen in life without getting too heavy-handed about it. The director has pointed to westerns as the ultimate inspiration for the picture, and it’s not difficult to feel the spirit of Sergio Leone hovering over the proceedings, especially in terms of its set-up; but perhaps it’s best taken as a sort of existentialist Gallic twist on the masterful Highsmith-Hitchcock “Strangers on a Train,” which so memorably had the straightlaced tennis pro played by Farley Granger exchanging murders with Robert Walker’s deliciously degenerate nabob, Bruno Anthony. In “Man on the Train,” Manesquier (Jean Rochefort), a perpetually bemused retired schoolmaster in a provincial French town, offers Milan (Johnny Hallyday), the titular recent arrival whom he bumps into at a pharmacy, a place to stay in his big, ramshackle house. Milan is a leather-jacketed, gun-toting stranger who’s as laconic and emotionally withdrawn as Manesquier is voluble and expressive, and his interest in the town’s lone bank is surely suspicious. What becomes clear as the pair interact is that both yearn to be more like the other, and over the course of a few days each learns from his new-found friend. In the end they do actually exchange identities–though in a hallucinatory way that marks this as very much an “art” film.

If you take “Man on the Train” on a purely literal level, it’s not likely to please. The story is implausible on its face, and the lead figures are more iconic creations than realistic human beings. Worse still, the picture goes off the tracks in the last reel, abandoning its relative simplicity in favor of an elaborately choreographed switch that’s too ostentatiously clever (and enigmatic) for its own good. But the quirkiness and surrealistic touches, which might have been simply precious, are made not only tolerable but pleasurable by Leconte’s austerely patrician style, Rochefort’s roguish charm and Hallyday’s deadpan authority. The interplay between the two men has a rich vein of oddball humor and occasional suggestions of poignancy, but the director and stars don’t allow it to descend into mawkishness. And while the secondary performers don’t have much opportunity to shine, there’s a running gag about the newest of Milan’s confederates that’s peculiar enough to score. As with all of Leconte’s work, the film is a delight to the eye, too, with the director’s subtlety beautifully matched by Ivan Maussion’s production design and Jean-Marie Drejou’s gorgeous widescreen photography. There’s also an pleasantly eclectic music score by Pascal Esteve which makes extensive use of both western guitar riffs and Schubert piano sonatas.

In comparison to Leconte’s other films, “Man on the Train” feels a little lightweight; perhaps that’s why he felt the need to turn up the level, not entirely successfully, at the end. But its overall stylishness, its able leads and its slyly serene sensibility keep it intriguing throughout.

THE HOT CHICK

Grade: F

A virulent plague has been sweeping through the nation’s multiplexes of late. It takes a variety of forms, but one can recognize it, and take care to avoid it, by watching for the common element: the presence of the words “A Happy Madison Production.” The sponsorship of Adam Sandler’s company is quickly becoming a virtual guarantee of the wretchedness of any movie carrying its banner.

As if the double debacle of “Mr. Deeds” and “Eight Crazy Nights” weren’t enough proof, the SNL star’s outfit now offers “The Hot Chick,” an alleged comedy showcasing Sandler’s buddy Rob Schneider as Clive, a scruffy petty criminal who, as a result of some magical babble involving a pair of ancient Abyssinian earrings, switches bodies with a snooty high school princess named Jessica (Rachel McAdams). Most of the running-time focuses on our watching Jessica/Clive as she/he tries to come to terms with being in a hairy man’s skin while keeping her parents in the dark about the transformation, holding onto her true-blue boyfriend Billy (Matthew Lawrence), winning the cheerleading championship against a rival school team, and–oh, yes–getting her own body back. She’s aided in all this by best buddy April (Anna Faris), and in the process of accomplishing her goals learns how to be a better, more thoughtful and more tolerant person. She also pauses to solve her family’s problems–not only the growing estrangement of her parents but the inclination of her little brother Booger (Matt Weinberg) to dress up in girl’s clothes. (Maybe if they’d resisted calling him Booger, of course, he would have turned out differently.)

What all this results in is a fragmented, episodic flick that’s nothing more than a random assemblage of cheap, remarkably tasteless gags (rampant penis jokes, smirky gay and lesbian humor, hackneyed high school bits of business, lots of slapstick violence–especially aimed at crotches–and even a stray pederast priest reference) and equally tasteless stereotypes (ditzy adolescent blondes, dull-witted authority figures, and–perhaps worst of all–a Korean woman who puts Margaret Cho’s version of her mother in the shade), all punctuated by moments of well-meaning but unctuous point-making. (“The Hot Chick” doesn’t even have the guts to be a straightforward gross-out; it wants to sell the audience dopey platitudes about life, too.) The common thread that ties it all together, unfortunately, is that it’s likely to generate more groans than laughs or nods of agreement. When it tries to be funny it’s usually appalling, but when it attempts to be sweet it’s truly nauseating.

The picture represents a come-down for Schneider, who even in his crummy past efforts like “Deuce Bigelow” and “The Animal” retained a smidgen of amiable charm. In this case, whether he’s gulping down mouthfuls of melted cheese and ice cream from a convenience-store dispenser or prancing about in an exaggeratedly “girlish” pose, he never manages to be even vaguely likable. McAdams does the typically vacuous campus princess bit well enough at the beginning (just think a bargain-basement replica of the “Clueless” Alicia Silverstone) but then disappears for most of the running-time, showing up toward the close as a hard-bitten stripper type–not entirely unconvincingly; Faris makes a suitably sad-sack best pal, and Lawrence an appropriately lovesick, doe-eyed swain. But the older actors stuck in supporting roles–Robert Davi, Jodi Long, Michael O’Keefe, Lee Garlington, Fay Hauser–really take a beating; this is one they’ll definitely want to scratch from their resumes. Sandler turns up in one of those wink-at-the- audience cameos that’s all wink and no amusement. The picture looks chintzy and slapdash, too.

In fact, the only thing funny about “The Hot Chick” are the takeoffs on its TV trailers that “South Park” did a few weeks ago. And those you can see without having to shell out eight hard-earned bucks.