Racing home to dinner after a long day at work, Antoine decides on a short cut through the park, a fateful choice that initiates a series of improbable events that constitute Pierre Salvadori's romantic farce, Après vous. This quiet solicitous maître d', whose concerns revolve around the correct wine with fish, suddenly must confront the big issues of life-well, love and death, at least-all the while dealing with a suicidal stranger, an impatient girlfriend and demanding customers at an upscale Parisian restaurant.
In the park, Antoine (Daniel Auteuil) chances upon a man attempting to hang himself from a tree, rescues him and brings him back to his apartment. (During the opening credits, Salvadori establishes Antoine's cheery compulsion to serve his fellow man, creating with impressive economy the most altruistic French waiter in cinematic history.) The morose Louis (José Garcia), it turns out, has been driven to despair by heartache, which Antoine attempts to alleviate with a light supper of cold chicken. Then Louis remembers that he posted a farewell note to his grandparents, who live hours outside the city, and Antoine bundles his new friend into his car for a road trip to intercept the letter.
It's obvious where the plot is headed-the French adore films about mismatched pals switching places-but Salvadori and his fellow screenwriters invent clever complications to keep us amused. Antoine manages to install Louis at Chez Jean as the sommelier, for example, hoping that work will take his mind off his troubles, but the gesture begets slapstick antics instead. Meanwhile, Antoine tracks down Louis' former lover, Blanche (Sandrine Kiberlain), who works at a flower shop. Naturally, he falls for her, in the process alienating his almost-fiancée, Christine (Maryline Canto). Distraught over his conflicted emotions, Antoine loses his focus at the restaurant even as Louis finds his mark...a classic reversal.
Auteuil, one of France's most accomplished actors, proves again he's an adept comedian, adroitly delivering his lines and gracefully employing his body for laughs. We can't help but like Antoine, generous to a fault, regardless that his good intentions bring him more grief than gratification.
Garcia, a relative newcomer, plays the foil to Auteuil. Louis is as self-absorbed as Antoine is self-effacing, with a persecution complex worthy of a French diplomat. But if Après vous has a flaw, it's Louis' character, by turns annoying and cloying. One wonders why Antoine spends so much time and energy on the guy.
Kiberlain, as Blanche, has a better role than Canto, as Christine, but both actresses are appealing and underscore one reason French comedies, for all their absurdities, are fun to watch: They are rife with recognizable types. Michèle Moretti, as Martine, owner of Chez Jean, and Andrée Tainsy, as Louis' grandmother, deliver drôle performances without going over the top, anchoring the more outrageous bits worked out between Auteuil and Garcia.
Après vous has funny moments throughout-the extended scene where Louis applies for the job of sommelier, relying on Antoine's prompts, features pantomime even Americans will enjoy-but the film is slow for a farce. Salvadori can extract humor from almost any circumstance-he can prompt laughs with camera angles-but he has trouble keeping the narrative moving at a lively pace. He takes too much time to set up the jokes, and as a result, the movie drags.
There are times when, an hour and 15 minutes into the film, Après vous seems ripe for closure, yet the director opts to draw out the proceedings, as though he doesn't want to part with his characters. It's not that the story loses its way, or that the director is indulging himself; it's simply that the French are more comfortable with leisurely action, as they are with leisurely dining. They don't rush to clear the plates until everyone has finished eating.
Then again, traditional farce has the advantage of unity of place as well as action. It's much easier to create havoc among lovers when they race between hotel rooms, slamming doors as they come and go. In the movies, lovers race between restaurants and apartments and flower shops and even hospitals, which all takes time, despite cell-phone technology. But there is an advantage to slow and subtle...one has time to read the subtitles.