July 3, 2011

Play Time (1967)
Grade: 51/100

Director: Jacques Tati
Stars: Jacques Tati, Barbara Dennek, Rita Maiden

What it's about. The third in a series of whimsical French comedies starring the well-intentioned but accident-prone Monsieur Hulot. In this entry, Hulot (Jacques Tati) attempts to meet someone at a large business office, but gets lost in the maze of cubicles.

Meanwhile, a tourist bus arrives, and a pleasant young American woman (Barbara Dennek) among them becomes an acquaintance of Hulot. The scene changes to a nightclub, where all dance to the frenzied music of a modern electronic band.

How others will see it. Tati took three years to film this production, which was costly due to its expensive sets. Unlike the two previous Hulot films, Play Time was a box office failure. Critics of the day were mostly unimpressed, although the movie did pick up a top award at the Bodil film festival.

Surprisingly, Play Time is the highest-rated Tati film at imdb.com, higher than even Mon Oncle, the second Hulot movie, which is clearly better. In another surprise, the highest rating demographic for Play Time from those under 18, who give it a whopping 8.8 out of 10. Presumably, that group enjoys the nightclub sequence, which gradually turns into a rave.

There is a subset of viewers who believe the movie is a bore. This subset appears small, but perhaps only because those who seek out the movie, perhaps after seeing Mon Oncle, are more likely to embrace it.

How I felt about it. There are some amusing gags in this movie. They include: a tourist's photo op of a picturesque Parisian flower shop ruined by non-picturesque passersby; a faux Roman ruin doubles as a garbage can; a pompous restaurant manager can't get a floor tile off his shoe; a doorman opens and closes a non-existent glass door with its brass handle; said brass handle receives a tip from a nightclub patron; Mr. Hulot inadvertently wrecks a modern art plank shelf; a parking meter turns a traffic circle into a merry-go-round.

That's about it. There are far more gags that don't work, such as the minister with a neon circle halo over his head, an ill-tempered German salesman irate at a silent Mr. Hulot, etc. Director Tati does manage to evoke a consistent gentle, whimsical feel that is reminiscent of Mon Oncle. The difference between the two films is that the latter works better as a comedy.

The message here is that the human race consists of lovable fools. The men are engaged but vain, while the women are graceful but frivolous. Women come off better, of course, but still make such empty observations that the imdb.com page for the film, at least of the time of writing, lacks a single quote from the movie.

It is too harsh to call the movie boring. It is difficult to watch. I admit to seeing it at home on a large television set. Fans say the movie is better in a theater, where the 70mm film has sufficient resolution to show the myriad little sight gags that fill the frames. Undoubtedly, on the small screen, some of those gags are missed. But the plot, such as it is, is as banal as the dialogue. To overcome such a shortfall, the gags must be on the level of a Chaplin movie. They are not.