Monday, December 09, 2013

What’s in a Name: So How was Dinner?

It is a question Shakespeare and Asimov asked, in very different contexts. A group of family and friends will wrestle with it anew during the sort of dinner party you might find in the work of Yasmina Reza. In fact, the name game hysterics unleashed by an expectant father also have their roots on the French stage.  After dominating the French box office, co-writer-co-directors Alexandre de La Patellière & Matthieu Delaporte's screen adaptation of their play What’s in a Name (trailer here) now opens this Friday in New York.

Even though it comes fairly early in the first act, you really have to hear for yourselves what Vincent Larchet plans to name his son.  Everybody is rather stunned by the news, particularly his brother-in-law Pierre Garraud, a popular literature professor who wears a lot of corduroy.  He might be the most vocal in his disapproval, but Larchet’s sister Elizabeth (a.k.a. “Babu”) and childhood chum Calude Gatignol are rather taken a back as well.  Just as emotions start to settle, Larchet’s very pregnant yet still compulsively late wife Anna Caravatti arrives to kick things up again.

Arguably, Name really is a lot like Carnage, except it has considerably more warmth (which is admittedly an easy bar to clear).  The initial round of bickering is wickedly funny, even though you have to wonder how any parent could propose doing that to their child.  Of course, the heated argument duly dislodges other closely held secrets and resentments, making it quite a dramatic night.

If you like talky movies (in the best sense) than Name is where you want to be.  Even in translated subtitles, de La Patellière & Delaporte’s dialogue is deliciously sharp and punchy.  Featuring most of the original stage cast, the ensemble’s crisp delivery would pass muster with Howard Hawks and his stop-watch.  There are also some rather politically incorrect moments, particularly with everyone’s assumptions regarding Gatignol, a suspiciously sensitive trombone player in the Radio France Orchestra.

The Fab Five are all quite strong, but Patrick Bruel really puts his stamp on the film, displaying comedic chops American audiences probably will not expect from his excellent work in A Secret and O Jerusalem.  Even though they all get their quirks, Charles Berring’s Garraud becomes what passes for an anchor of stability in this bedlam, yet the newcomer still has some fine moments losing his cool with Bruel.  Frankly, Valérie Benguigui’s frumpy martyr act as Garraud-Larchet gets a bit tiresome, but Judith El Zein brings notable grit and verve to bear as the late-coming Caravatti.

Even though Name is essentially still a five character one set affair, de La Patellière & Delaporte open it up enough so it does not feel distractingly claustrophobic.  It never drags either.  Infused with attitude yet ultimately forgiving of all its characters’ shortcomings, What’s in a Name is smart entertainment, recommended for Francophiles and those who appreciate literate comedy when it opens this Friday (12/13) in New York at the Cinema Village and will also be available on itunes. (If you're in Ogden the week of 1/17-1/23 and can't get fest tickets, it will also be playing at the Arthouse Cinema 502.)