OSS 117

The Reader, I think it was, advised that the spy movie parody to see this year was not Get Smart but the French film OSS 117: Cairo, nest of spies.  So we gave it a try.  I haven’t seen Get Smart, so I can’t directly compare.  OSS 117 pretty much covers the ground, however.  (Ironically, it’s based on a non-parody series of French spy novels that predates James Bond, featuring an American of French descent.)

The film’s hero is Hubert Bonisseur de la Bath, alias OSS 117– suave, good-looking, and the absolute model of fatuity.  The actor, Jean Dujardin, nails the required attitude: he may be stupid and sometimes goofy, but he believes in himself utterly.  American comedians generally can’t do this: if we do parody it’s over-the-top and knowing; we don’t like to look like idiots.  (At the same time, 117 isn’t quite as stupid as Johnny English.)

The look of 1960s spy flicks are very affectionately re-created, down to the film stock, cheesy establishing shots, and fakey rear projection.  There are some nice meta-jokes, such as 117 waking up in bed, hair dissheveled, and running his hand once through his hair to comb it immaculately, and an agent who is employed solely to report to his superiors exactly where 117 is, till they get sick of it and eliminate him.

The jokes are a little skewed by American tastes.  Some are silly in an inspired low-budget way (such as two spies throwing chickens at each other), some strange and subtle, such as a scene where some suspicious character toss around gnomic, absurd statements at each other as a sort of existentialist one-upsmanship.  A lot of the humor comes from pure embarrassment: 117 is so insulting or condescending that the other characters don’t even know what to do with it.

It doesn’t always work, but it’s fun.