-By Wendy R. Weinstein

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Director Patrice Leconte (Intimate Strangers, Ridicule), along with co-screenwriter Jérôme Tonnerre, takes what could have been a slight, predictable odd-couple buddy picture and find surprising depths of feeling in My Best Friend. They are helped immeasurably by their two leads: veteran French actor Daniel Auteuil as François, a cultured, priggish, middle-aged antiques dealer, and the equally fine Dany Boon as Bruno, a young, sweet-natured, fact-obsessed Parisian cabbie with his own social issues. Bruno never knows when to stop sharing his wealth of trivia, suffers from nerves, and has his own doubts about friendship. But his interpersonal skills are brilliant compared to François, who is shocked to discover one night at a dinner party that he has no friends. How does he find out? They tell him point-blank. Worse than that, he learns that many of his acquaintances think he's a selfish, conniving shark, and among those acquaintances count his daughter. (His ex-wife never even enters the picture.)

My Best Friend starts slyly with François in close-up, cutting off a conversation on his cell-phone, saying, "My client just got here." His client, fittingly, arrives in a coffin, providing the first of many darkly funny, unexpected moments. Even before François realizes that unless he changes, he too will leave this earth with few if any mourners, he's shaken by the small turnout. He's only there to ask the widow for a piece of furniture. Soon he joins his business partner, Catherine (Julie Gayet), at an auction and becomes unaccountably obsessed with owning a large antique Greek vase which depicts the close friendship of two men. Its original owner apparently filled it with his tears after the death of his best friend. Since François pays an exorbitant amount for it on the company account, Catherine insists he take up a bet: Come up with a best friend in ten days' time, or relinquish the vase to her.

It's hard to buy at first that anyone, much less the suave and appealing Daniel Auteuil, could be completely friendless, but the conceit allows the filmmakers to explore the mystery of adult friendship, how complex it is, and how rife with compromises and pretense. And while it might not be completely believable that a successful, worldly entrepreneur is a complete social idiot (and François is not consistently clueless), it's possible to believe that one could fill up one's life with things and work and forget about people.

That's where Bruno comes in. As vulnerable as François is guarded, the awkward and unpretentious Bruno seems the last person to strike up a friendship with the haughty aesthete. They meet by chance, as driver and passenger, and it's not love at first sight. In fact, Bruno clearly gets on François' nerves. But when they meet again, after François has failed to find a single friend, much less a best, the older man asks the younger to be his teacher, and guessed it. Bruno tries to school François in "the three S's: smiling, sociability and sincerity," but it is the last of the S's that poses the greatest challenge.

Except for a hackneyed montage sequence set in a park, in which Bruno looks on shaking his head as François makes a fool of himself approaching strangers in a failed attempt to be friendly, the film maintains a deft touch. There are clever scenes of François searching for the secrets of friendship that reveal the shame and confusion many people feel about the subject. In one, he quietly asks a clerk in a crowded bookstore for How to Make Friends, as if he were asking for pornography, and she hollers the title to a distant associate not once but twice. François attends a crowded lecture in which the speaker details the importance of friendship in our society, only to conclude that in fact real friendship is an illusion. Curiously, François has a beautiful and eager lover he takes for granted, but she is never considered a best-friend candidate. It's one more sign of his myopia, but why such an appealing woman is interested in François in the first place is never addressed. As the story progresses, the characters lose their initial two-dimensionality, and take on more nuance. Bruno, especially, reveals the pain, anger and acumen behind his working-class duffer exterior. Boon employs his plastic features, expressive eyes and even his sweat to express Bruno's odd mix of anxiety and appeal. In the suspenseful and artfully staged finale, Leconte uses the French version of the game show "Who Wants to be a Millionaire?"--with the actual host--to wonderful comic and dramatic effect.

My Best Friend proves that even the most artificial premise can yield a heartfelt result.

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