Thursday, September 15, 2011

OSS 117: Cairo, Nest of Spies

I'm not a big fan of comedies, possibly because I believe that I'm funnier than what I am watching.  And if I'm watching a Happy Madison production, then I'm definitely correct.  I find even fewer foreign language comedies funny because so much of humor is based on timing, and the delay that comes from reading subtitles usually ruins the moment for me.  And while I like some French films, I can never forgive their sense of humor for extending Jerry Lewis' career.  When you consider all the facts, OSS 117: Cairo, Nest of Spies had a pretty slim chance of me liking it.  So why did I even bother?  I'm not sure...I just had a hunch.

When French secret agent Jack Jefferson (Phillipe Lefebvre) disappears while on assignment in Cairo, it is up to his fellow agent and friend, Hubert Bonisseur de la Bath (Jean Dujardin), to uncover the plot that took his friend and (probably) endangers the world.  This would be a tall task for any man, but the odds are a little better when your secret agent code name is OSS 117.  Why?  Um...let's just go with it for now, okay?  If absolutely nothing else, he's the sort of macho super-spy stereotype that we have come to expect; men want him, women want to be him, etc.
Seducing a dangerous woman...?  007 would be proud.

In Cairo, OSS 117 meets up with Jefferson's Egyptian liaison, Larmina El Akmar Betouche (Berenice Bejo), and begins his investigation while maintaining the cover story of assuming control of Jefferson's poultry plant (I assume that's what you call a large-scale hen house).  In the process of uncovering the truth, OSS 117 stumbles upon a plot that involves Soviet Russia, America, France, the British, a few different splinter Egyptian groups, Nazis, and a particularly incompetent Belgian.  Of course, it would be a whole lot easier for OSS 117 to learn the truth if he wasn't a complete idiot.
Their disapproving stares are for the nation of Belgium, France's beer-swilling cousin

The spoof is a difficult form of comedy to pull off successfully.  Sure, you could make fun of a film subgenre by using obvious visual gags and throwing pop culture references left and right, but the best spoofs find a way to balance stupid humor with cleverness --- and it always helps when the filmmakers have a genuine love for what they're ridiculing.  OSS 117: Cairo, Nest of Spies isn't just poking fun at classic James Bond-type films, it is spoofing itself.  A few years before Ian Fleming created Bond, French author Jean Bruce created Hubert Bonisseur de la Bath, and the character starred in seven theatrical films from 1956-1970.  Of course, I had no idea about any of that until I clicked on the character link on IMDb, but it doesn't surprise me.  This is a spoof that warmly recalls the ridiculousness of 1960s spy movies and is gently poking fun at some of the more outlandish themes.

Surprisingly, this spoof does a pretty good job doing just that.  Sometimes it is the little things, like having de la Bath wake up with pillow hair and simply running his fingers through it to achieve a sculpted quaff.  Sometimes it is capturing the film era perfectly, with the projected backgrounds in every driving scene.
"My quaff isn't the only thing that's sculpted"
What I liked most about those little moments was that they weren't called out; other jokes were being made simultaneously, and these were just clever nods to the past.  As for the more direct humor, it's not as successful.  Yes, there is a slight language barrier, but I didn't find myself doing much more than smiling at most of the jokes.  The writing was okay --- having OSS 117 be completely ignorant of Egyptian history, politics, and religion was a solid comedic premise --- but it rarely became clever or crude enough to make me truly appreciate it.  I think my favorite bit was how de la Bath's flashbacks consisted of very cliched scenes, only with the dialogue completely replaced with manly laughter.  It's a basic and stupid gag, but it was handled perfectly.

For the most part, the cast of OSS 117: Cairo, Nest of Spies plays the straight man to Jean Dujardin's moronic super spy.  That means the two love interests, Aure Atika and Berenice Bejo, primarily just act cross with OSS 117 while looking pretty.  That doesn't matter, because this film belongs to Jean Dujardin.  He is very impressive in this role, blending suaveness with stupid humor better than anyone since James Coburn.  Of course, this is nowhere near as ridiculous as the Flint films --- it's hard to top a spy that can speak to dolphins --- but Dujardin seems equally at ease with the tough guy spy moments and the truly silly stuff.
Like what?

While I didn't find all the humor very funny, I will credit director Michel Hazanavicius with crafting an intelligently stupid and respectful spoof.  It never panders to the lowest common denominator (like Austin Powers), but its tone is never too arch, either.  Since this is a comedy, the direction is a little harder to judge; cinematography and coaching the actors doesn't really work the same way when you're trying to be funny.  Still, I appreciated the little things Hazanavicius did and I liked the apparent bond between him and Dujardin.  I wouldn't call this a directorial triumph, but I am looking forward to the pair's next project, The Artist.

To summarize, I thought OSS 117: CNoS was clever and occasionally funny, but not funny enough to love.  Oh, and I have one question that's been bugging me as I wrote this: why is a member of the OSS (the precursor to the CIA) a member of the French secret service, too?  If anyone can answer that, I'd appreciate it.


  1. HAHA This looks funny.

    I liked Dujardin (for the little time he was on screen) in Little White Lies and I am very much looking forward to his cheesy face in The Artist!!

    Great write up Brian

  2. It's a solid little flick, for sure. You know a comedy has done its job when you want to see more of the star.