Ordinarily the only thing worse than a bad–or even just a mediocre–French comedy is an American remake of it. To prove the point, just consider Nora Ephron’s abysmal “Mixed Nuts” (1995), or the wretched Tim Allen vehicle “Jungle 2 Jungle” (1997). The career of writer- director Francois Veber is littered with examples: recall, if it doesn’t hurt too much, “The Man With One Red Shoe” (1985), “Three Fugitives” (1989), “Pure Luck” (1991) and “Father’s Day” (1997)–all catastrophic adaptations of his French pictures (some perpetrated by himself) . Even good French comedies have been butchered in their Americanization: “La cage aux folles” was marvelous, but would anyone want to sit through “The Birdcage” (1996) again? Some wines don’t travel well, and French farce seems equally resistant to trans-oceanic refashioning.
Now the Disney conglomerate has remade “Les visiteurs,” a fantasy comedy about a medieval count named Thibault and his smelly servant Andre who are magically transported to the modern age. It was France’s biggest boxoffice smash of 1993, taking in twice as much as “Jurassic Park.” That doesn’t mean it was any good, of course; you have to remember that Jerry Lewis is revered for his comic ability by the French, and “Les visiteurs” is very much in that crude, knockabout tradition. It was, to put it mildly, excruciatingly unfunny, and it rightfully bombed when it was released briefly in this country. The fact that anyone should have thought it a good idea to do an English-language version of it seems, on the surface, incomprehensible.
When put into historical context, however, “Just Visiting,” as the adaptation is called, doesn’t fit the usual mold. True, it’s hardly a good picture: when most of a movie’s gag’s center on guys eating sloppily, misusing bathroom facilities (at one point they wash up in a toilet, and at another munch away on disinfectant cubes taken from a urinal) and thrashing the living daylights out of cars and TV sets, it’s clear that humorous understatement is not in its vocabulary. And the addition of state-of-the-art special effects (dragons, shimmering bodies akin to that of the villainous Robert Patrick in “Terminator 2,” and the like) doesn’t help. Compared to “Les visiteurs,” though, “Just Visiting” is less egregiously bad. As a fish-out-of-water farce it doesn’t improve much on any given episode of “The Beverly Hillbillies,” but lots of people still enjoy those. Perhaps because of the involvement of John Hughes in the rewriting, it has considerably more schmaltzy, tender elements than the original did–Thibault is more reserved here, and Andre is given romance and the desire for freedom, for instance. And Hughes’ participation was probably instrumental in transferring the action to Chicago–a wise decision, since the city provides lots of great outdoor locations (there are some wonderful shots of the Loop).
Still, one shouldn’t get overly enthusiastic. “Just Visiting” is still obvious and formulaic, and it’s burdened with a heroine–Thibault’s mousy descendent Julia (Christiana Applegate)–who’s a little too dense for comfort (as well as rather pallidly played), as well as a villainous twosome–Julia’s money-hungry beau Hunter (Matthew Ross) and his snarly mistress Amber (Bridgette Wilson- Sampras)–that’s awfully tiresome. To make matters worse, Clavier mugs so broadly that his repetitive bits run out of steam pretty quickly. On the other hand, Reno is pleasantly relaxed, and Malcolm McDowell gets some laughs as the sorcerer who gets our boys into their modern mess.
There’s one question of identification about “Just Visiting” which is sure to keep film historians scratching their heads for some time. The direction of “Les visiteurs” has routinely been attributed to Jean-Marie Poire, who also co-wrote the script with Clavier, the co-star. Disney, however, names the director of the remake as Jean-Marie Gaubert, with Jean-Marie Poire listed as one of the three scripters. In promotional materials, though, Hollywood Pictures says that Gaubert was the director of the original French film, too. What’s up?
Whoever helmed the new version, the result isn’t as terrible as anyone who saw the French original might have anticipated, and younger audiences in particular may be taken by its brand of harmless vulgarity and silliness; some adults will also tolerate the insistent heart-tugging. By the standards of earlier trans-Atlantic transplants, “Just Visiting” is a comparatively welcome guest, but you’ll nonetheless be glad that, at a mere 88 minutes, it doesn’t insist on staying around too long.