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Excuse My French: Hollywood’s Doomed Remakes of French Comedies

With the release of ‘The Upside,’ a remake of the French smash ‘Intouchables,’ a trend continues: American reboots of French comedy classics. But why are so many of them so bad?

A black man and a white man in front of a backdrop of palm trees and the French flag Getty Images/STX/Ringer illustration

Enfin! It’s here: The Upside, the American remake of the hit 2011 French comedy Intouchables—about a wealthy white quadriplegic who hires a black man from the projects as his live-in caregiver—is finally coming out after sitting on the shelf due to sexual assault allegations against Harvey Weinstein. And as it turns out, there isn’t really any upside to the situation: It’s being released in the midst of costar Kevin Hart’s seemingly endless public controversies. Add to this Bryan Cranston’s superfluous comments about playing a disabled character and the material’s problematic magical-black-man narrative—in both versions, the caregiver teaches his employer to loosen up and enjoy life—et c’est pas du joli.

The Upside was meant to be a big deal nonetheless. The French original made actor Omar Sy a star in France and on the international scene (he won the Best Actor César against Jean Dujardin in The Artist) and became the highest-ever-grossing non-English-language film worldwide.

This pattern of French smashes being remade in Hollywood is nothing new: Before Intouchables and The Upside, there was the pair of Trois Hommes et un Couffin and Three Men and a Baby, which became the highest grossing film of 1987 in America. There was also Mike Nichols’s The Birdcage, remade from the French classic La Cage aux Folles. Gene Wilder’s infamous 1984 flop The Woman in Red was based on the much more successful 1976 masterpiece Un Éléphant Ça Trompe Énormément—and so on. If The Upside seems like a disaster before it’s even released, one way to understand its failure—and its very existence—is to explore this tradition as a whole, and see what keeps attracting American filmmakers to these stories.

Growing up in France, I must have seen the buttered biscotte scene from 1978’s Oscar-nominated La Cage aux Folles a hundred times on television; homegrown comedies were deeply ingrained in a country with a limited media landscape and the same titles were regularly re-broadcast. The common denominator in France’s most popular comedies was a satire or assault on domesticity. In Un Éléphant, a happily married man contemplates adultery; in Les Compères, remade as Father’s Day by Ivan Reitman, two men search for the young man they’ve both been told is their son. In La Cage aux Folles, a homosexual couple acts straight—and, more interestingly, right-wing—to please their son’s conservative potential step-parents. Often taking place in bourgeois apartments and corporate offices, these films touch on universal themes of love, family, tolerance, infidelity, and ambition, deriving their comedy from the snowball effects of human mistakes and bad luck. Situations escalate but remain realistic: Étienne (Jean Rochefort), the hero of Un Éléphant, recounts his adventure from the outside of the top window of a Parisian hotel, where he is standing in a bathrobe while firemen are downstairs, ready to rescue someone who they think is suicidal—pretty much a perfect “record scratch” moment. In France, comedy is in the everyday: c’est la vie.

But shouldn’t it be the same in America, where people also have families, jobs, and affairs? How come the antics of Steve Carell’s character in Dinner for Schmucks in Jay Roach’s version didn’t make anyone laugh as much as Jacques Villeret’s in Francis Veber’s original, in which friends compete to bring the biggest, most baffling cretin to a dinner party? (Let’s establish this very important fact, schmucks: The only acceptable translation of Le Dîner de Cons is “Dinner for Morons.”) Why does Gene Wilder’s relentless pursuit of the bikini-clad woman of his dreams in The Woman in Red feel so creepy, when Jean Rochefort’s was irresistibly funny? (Another truth: The double entendre of Un Éléphant Ça Trompe Énormément, where “trompe” means both “to cheat” and “trunk,” is sadly untranslatable.) Hollywood remakes’ tendency to fail at the box office seems to indicate that something has been lost in translation, but this muddling extends to successes as well: Even hits like Three Men and a Baby deviated from their source material in ways that make them much less interesting.

In the first scenes of Trois Hommes et un Couffin, we are introduced to architect Pierre (Roland Giraud), painter Michel (Michel Boujenah), and flight attendant Jacques (André Dussollier), three early-40s men living their bachelor lives together in their Paris apartment, each sleeping with multiple women and partying—a triple portrait of sleazy misogyny. The American remake—directed by none other than Leonard “Spock” Nimoy—takes a much softer and compartmentalized approach to masculinity. Peter (Tom Selleck), Michael (Steve Guttenberg), and Jack (Ted Danson) are womanizers, but their lifestyle is shown in a word-less, soundtracked, and accelerated montage—a cute cartoon. When they do speak about women, it’s with kindness. Peter’s relationship with his girlfriend is also clearly qualified as “open,” even if it bothers each of them to see their lover with competitors. Finally, and crucially, Guttenberg’s painter is the sensitive type: Women always go to him with their problems, and he always ends up advising them to return to their exes rather than have sex with him. There is little space left for ambiguity and for human strangeness: Everyone in Three Men has to conform to a distinct type. Everyone has to fit in a box.

French comedies’ willingness to embrace human complexity helps explain their approach to gay characters as well. Daniel, one of Étienne’s macho friends in Un Élephant, is forced to come out of the closet, which comes as a surprise to the group—not because of how “straight” he seemed (they don’t ostracize him and he doesn’t tone down his male bravado) but because they thought they knew him well. Actor Claude Brasseur received accolades for the role, including a Supporting Actor César, and if it can be argued that this hyper-masculine version of homosexuality was deemed more palatable than a more effeminate one, context here is crucial: Daniel is allowed to be a gay character outside the stereotypes of “folles” (translation: crazies) that then populated French cinema. La Cage aux Folles represented a similar achievement, and when The Birdcage came out, Robin Williams, playing the father in disguise, Armand, was praised for his quieter-than-usual performance, leaving the theatrics to costar Nathan Lane. Armand’s gestures, whether he is his natural self or pretending to be straight, are uncharacteristically subdued for Williams, making him a literal and figurative straight man.

The French, famously, embrace a moral ambiguity, which contrasts greatly with Hollywood. The hero of Un Éléphant actually sleeps with his dream girl. Wilder, by contrast, doesn’t let his onscreen alter ego get so lucky: He is interrupted at the moment of truth by a knock on the door. The (anti)heroes of Trois Hommes are somewhat abashed by their enjoyment of fatherhood; in Three Men and a Baby, their capacity for tenderness is never doubted, and unlike their French counterparts, they swear off their womanizing ways as soon as their surrogate daughter is taken out of the picture. Un Éléphant and Trois Hommes satirize male foibles and weakness—Rochefort learns nothing from the fall he takes at the end of the movie, scanning the crowd below the ledge for possible lovers—but the American films embrace prudishness and reassurance. They twist their relatable elements for aspirational purposes: You too could be a sexy, middle-aged, liberal, and affectionate father, like Michael Keaton’s Mr. Mom or Nicolas Cage in Raising Arizona!

Instead of flattering their audience, the French comedies, at their best, function as more ironic takedowns of those same spectators, while also making them feel less alone about their own flaws and imperfections. The French stars are generally regular-looking (borderline ugly) guys, instead of handsome studs. This same dynamic extends in the other direction as well: American comedy stars work harder to be ridiculous. Gene Wilder looks and acts, indeed, a lot wilder than the respectable, polite, and always composed Jean Rochefort. Paul Rudd’s Tim in Schmucks is “handsome, but in a non-threatening way; vaguely, but not overtly Jewish,” while Thierry Lhermitte’s Pierre in Le Dîner de Cons is way meaner. The characterization in both films betrays Hollywood’s anxiety to make sure audiences never relate to a Bad Person: Pierre’s mistress has turned into Tim’s insane stalker; the infamous dinner is a weekly, pointless tradition for Pierre, while it is an exceptional event for Tim, who reluctantly accepts to take part in this sick game for a job promotion. Not only is Dinner for Schmucks unfunny, it’s sentimental; in the end, Carrell’s loser helps the hero reunite with his fiancée, instead of remaining helplessly stupid like in the original.

The complex relationship between character and spectator in these French films, with both intimacy and distance enabled by well-deployed irony, becomes simplified into a list of “do’s” and “don’ts” in American comedies, which are more interested in the phenomenon of self-improvement and self-empowerment. Hollywood’s understanding of social comedies as behavioral guides does away with psychological complexity and with the films’ (admittedly) very French existential leanings. Minus Un Éléphant’s wordy self-deluding voice-over—which contrasts with the protagonist’s creepy, stalker-ish behavior—the critique of romanticism as a cover for male self-righteousness gets lost in The Woman in Red. Similarly, the overbearing, treacly soundtrack in Three Men cancels out the uncomfortable, almost surreal and contemplative silence that dominates the apartment in Trois Hommes, as the men go through the difficulties of childcare. Music turns their bizarre trials into a fun, cartoonish adventure. There’s nothing in Nimoy’s film to equal the moment when Jacques, in a drunken stupor, turns existential and asks his friends, intensely: “Why am I alive?” The implication isn’t that men should live for child-rearing, but rather that Jacques previously had so little sense of responsibility and of his own mortality that taking care of a child for a few months has fully rerouted his understanding of himself. It’s absurd, but it’s also recognizably human. In those French comedies, improbable situations bring out the essential moral dilemmas that guide our entire lives, in a lighthearted but direct (almost confrontational) way.

The times, however, have a’ changé, and so comedies’ targets have too. If the 1980s were all about the New Man and third-wave feminism (again, it’s no coincidence that Three Men came out the same year as Fatal Attraction), the new millennium focuses on discrimination—an issue that the French have been shamefully slow to address. Intouchables was at once about disability awareness and racism; 2014’s Qu’est-ce Qu’on a Fait Au Bon Dieu? (“What have we done to our dear Lord?”), a huge success in France, explores all kinds of racism as a Catholic family welcomes step-sons of various ethnic origins; and Les Tuche, another popular series, follows a poor (white) family that moves to Monaco after winning millions at the lottery. But these issues are more specific than those of masculinity, faithfulness, or friendship—and much more delicate to address for a country that still finds it difficult to admit to its well-known oppression of ex-colonies, and for a film industry that welcomed the #MeToo movement with shockingly backward ideas regarding sexual harassment.

The perilousness of race and class relations also makes the ironic approach of 1980s French comedies obsolete: As the latest rise of ridiculous fascists across the world has made clear, making fun of racists isn’t going to stop them. Qu’est Ce Qu’on a Fait was poorly received in almost every foreign country (notable exceptions are Germany and Spain), while Les Tuche barely traveled. Even Intouchables, despite its worldwide success, received negative reviews in France and elsewhere for its reliance on stereotypes. French comedy’s extreme apathy to conventional “correctness” is both its strength and its greatest weakness: It takes agility to navigate such social issues with humor, without making light of their life-or-death implications. America, on the other hand, may be prudish, but is also generally more responsible with the way its cinema explores racism, an issue that is literally at this country’s foundation. It is no wonder that, since the early 2000s, the wave of American remakes of French fare has slowed down almost to a stop. (Compare and contrast Intouchables’ reception with the virulent reactions to Green Book, seven years later, and see the glimmer of hope for a better understanding of racism’s insidiousness.)

Through the years, Hollywood’s ever-greater influence has also helped change the tone of French comedies: Gross-out jokes and car chases are now a staple in those films, too, to the detriment of such awkward, pregnant silences such as the ones in Trois Hommes. Some less mainstream films, however, pursue the lighter, less topical route of yesteryear by telling simple love stories with Americanized elements: Pierre Salvadori’s excellent En Liberté! (The Trouble With You) last year followed a widowed detective falling in love with the man that her dead corrupt husband had put behind bars, leveraging gunplay against feminist subtext. Justine Triet’s Victoria (2016) provided an almost too real story of unlikely romance; and Gustave Kervern and Benoît Delépine’s 2018 socialist manifesto I Feel Good (the title is in English originally) starred Jean Dujardin as a Trumpian loser humbled by his absurd attempt to provide cheap plastic surgery to the volunteers of a nonprofit organization. But now that Hollywood consists mostly of superhero franchises, and as those small French features screen abroad only if they enter film festivals, I doubt that any studio will ever offer us something as strange yet simple as I Feel Good. The upside is, they’d only ruin it anyway.