The French Ministry of Culture may have enacted laws that mandate 40 percent of music made in France to be in French, but that doesn't mean a French filmmaker can't purloin 90 percent of his film from English-speaking influences. Writer-director Michel Hazanavicius has done just that with his Get Smart meets Austin Powers spy film send-up, OSS 117: Cairo, Nest of Spies.
The results of Hazanavicius' thievery are mixed. Nest of Spies' primary strength lies in its fantastically detailed aesthetic recreation of the spy films of the 1960s. It's also got a few very funny scenes. But its total laugh-count is middling and its overwrought, stale air of political correctness will leave you neither shaken, nor stirred.
Set in 1955, Nest of Spies stars popular French comedian Jean Dujardin as bumbling spy Hubert Bonisseur de la Bath, code name: OSS 117. Dujardin, in a dashing tux and with his hair parted and slicked to the side or, equally, shirtless, with matching macho chest hair, bears a remarkable resemblance to a young Sean Connery from his early Bond days. This is not the only clue that will cause many an American audience member to perceive Nest of Spies as an unmitigated Bond spoof. It is, though it also is based on prolific French writer Jean Bruce's novel (and subsequent movie) series, which first appeared in 1949, thus predating Ian Fleming's Bond series by some four years.
At the film's outset we discover OSS 117 has been dispatched to Cairo on a mission to discover why his old friend was killed and, more generally, for the purpose of instigating peace in the Middle East. Undercover as a bigwig poultry trader, OSS 117 begins insulting Muslims, bedding babes and missing obvious clues with gusto.
OSS 117 is an idiot. He tries to stimulate Middle Eastern peace without understanding the culture and actually causes a reactionary force to take up arms. Yes, Nest of Spies is also an obvious dig at Georgie W. And since Nest of Spies is set in 1955 Egypt, the year before the Suez Canal Crisis (in which the British and French invaded Egypt under flimsy pretenses eventually leading to European ejection and a wave of anti-colonial sentiment), Hazanavicius also makes fun of French colonial-era chauvinism. These pointed jokes are funny and well thought out.
But there is a degree of liberal political correctness (of the French variety) in the overstated respect given to the Egyptian Muslims. Nary a joke is had at their expense and some out of place, apparently serious and overly preachy moments are had in which Hazanavicius seems to have forgotten he's making a comedy altogether.
The French simply can't do stupid the way we can. But let's face it: who really can?
OSS 117: Cairo, Nest of Spies
Directed by Michel Hazanavicius and written by Michel Hazanavicius and Jean-François Halin, based on the OSS 117 novel series by Jean Bruce
With Jean Dujardin, Bérénice Bejo, Aure Atika, Philippe Lefebvre and Constantin Alexandrov
CCA, 99 min., NR