With Hollywood’s grand history of legendary comedians and works of groundbreaking comedy, one would think that US cinema would be the one to import their classics to France for remakes. The opposite is actually true: Hollywood has a long tradition of adapting French comedies Stateside. Which isn’t all that surprising; plenty of French comedies with farcical premises, full of ample opportunities for shenanigans, perfectly apply to Hollywood’s funny superstars, fodder for American romps.
, a remake of the 2011 French megahit The Intouchables, hit theaters this past January, and was also a hit (though much humbler) for a relatively small studio. So there’s no better time to take a dive into some of the best and worst that this special relationship between the two countries has to offer. Grab your baguettes and whatever cliches come to the mind of a willfully ignorant American who’s never been to France, because here are the five worst and five best American remakes of French comedies.
The Dinner Game (1998)
Writer/director Francis Veber is a staple of French comedies remade in Hollywood. He adapted La Cage aux Folles to the screen, and also directed the original versions of The Toy, Fathers’ Day and Three Fugitives (he directed that remake as well). The Dinner Game, his 1998 satire about a snooty publisher (Thierry Lhermitte) participating in the cruel workplace tradition of inviting an “idiot” (Jacques Villeret) to dinner solely to make fun of them, is no masterpiece. The narrative is unfocused at times, and Veber certainly takes advantage of the idiot character’s likable buffoonery to extract some chuckles. Yet, the scorn of the piece is reserved for the cruel publisher, whose arc in eventually relating more to the idiot than to his co-workers is the thematic point of the piece. The 2010 remake by Jay Roach completely shits the bed in that sense by making two disastrous casting choices. First, the cruel straight man is played by the immediately huggable Paul Rudd, whose ambitious executive is conflicted about the decision to make fun of his idiot (Steve Carell) from the start, sucking out all tension from the story. More egregiously, Carell’s character, along with other idiots played by otherwise talented comedians like Zach Galifianakis and Jemaine Clement, comes across as a cloying caricature from the reject pile of the worst SNL seasons. Since it’s impossible to relate to the idiots in the remake, we take the side of the evil businessmen.
The ComDads (1983)
Francis Veber is back, writing and directing the forgettably cute dramedy The ComDads, about two men (Pierre Richard and Gerard Depardieu) who find out that one of them is the father of a son they didn’t know they might have, and try to get to the bottom of that understandably confusing situation. The film works thanks to the clear dynamic between François (Richard), the eccentric goofball, and Jean (Depardieu), the uptight businessman. In the 1997 remake Fathers’ Day, director Ivan Reitman decides to give both parts to two of the most energetic improvisational comedians of their time, Billy Crystal and Robin Williams. Now both characters represent the comic relief, trying to one-up each other in every episodic, skit-like sequence, erasing the central dynamic of the original in the process. Reitman, too, over-relies on simply turning on the camera and letting Williams do an endless series of cartoonish voices. Already tired in 1997, Fathers’ Day is excruciating now (look only to Williams’ “hip hop” voice).
The nightmare of the early ’90s “comedian” phase for Sylvester Stallone, in which the action star with a limited number of expressions in his arsenal suddenly got it in his head that he’s a funnyman, is what happens when you surround yourself with nothing but yes men and gave us the charisma void of Stop! Or My Mom Will Shoot the next year. Based on the 1967 comedy of errors of the same name, itself based on a play by Claude Magnier, Oscar saw Stallone as a mob boss trying desperately to find a man for his pregnant daughter (Marisa Tomei) while also attempting to go straight. The main character in the original was a businessman played by France’s comedy genius, Louis de Funes. De Funes is a master at mugging for the camera, and the film’s unapologetically farcical tone fits his sensibilities. In director John Landis’s version, the setting is moved to 1930s Chicago, where the dazzling cinematography pays appropriate nostalgic homage to old gangster films, and most of the cast, especially Tomei, are game. But the buck stops at Stallone, who only has a single gear as he imitates a log screaming at nothing while shitting gravel.
Mon père, ce héros. (1991)
Right down to its star, Mon père, ce héros. and My Father the Hero are almost pointlessly similar. The story of an uptight father (Gerard Depardieu) trying to come to grips with his teenage daughter’s (Marie Gillain) burgeoning sexuality during summer vacation doesn’t lend itself to a particularly successful comedy, but at least it stays afloat thanks to some clever set-pieces and fine chemistry between Depardieu and Gillain. The first mistake director Steve Miner makes with the remake is to cast Depardieu again. As versatile an actor as they come, Depardieu still struggles with landing the English dialogue that came so natural to him in French. Some awful pedophile jokes related to Depardieu’s character being French, and Katherine Heigl foreshadowing her future career as the expressionless, mannequin-like daughter, don’t help much in selling this god awful retread.
The point of Taxi, Luc Besson’s first go at eventually defining a certain kind of Euro-action, was the unbelievably fast and reckless car chases accomplished using practical stunts. So when it came to producing the inevitable American version, of course the only sensible choice was to dial down the action, turning whatever chase sequences remained into a CGI-laden shitfest, and putting all the narrative chips into the non-existing chemistry between stars Queen Latifah and Jimmy Fallon. It gets worse: Director Tim Story somehow used his clout from helming this bomb into ruining Fantastic Four. Meanwhile, the original Taxi thrived into an ongoing series of increasingly over the top car chase blockbusters. The fifth installment was released in 2018.
Three Men and a Cradle (1985)
The ’80s had its share of flicks about how loony it would be for men to take over homemaking duties with more and more women joining the workforce. A man struggling to work the dishwasher!? Oh, the hilarity, Mr. Mom! And so, Three Men and a Baby, a considerable box-office hit and proof that director Leonard Nimoy isn’t attached to the hip to everything Star Trek, provides a fun and harmless bit of feature-length sitcom. The premise is exactly the same as the original: Three bachelors (Ted Danson, Steve Guttenberg and Tom Selleck) are saddled with a baby that appears out of nowhere and have to take care of her until they figure out what’s going on. The two films are fairly similar in narrative structure and gags, but the remake has a slight edge thanks to the writing and casting giving these characters more distinct personalities. (The men in the original are a bit interchangeable.) The remake also adds an ill-advised crime sub-plot to inject some artificial tension to the third act, but it’s a tiny fault overall.
Pardon Mon Affaire (1976)
Gene Wilder’s goofy remake of Pardon Mon Affaire, the story of an otherwise loyal family man trying to get a salacious affair off the ground and failing miserably, is almost a shot-by-shot recreation, down to the iconic image of Kelly LeBrock’s spontaneous dance as her red dress is lifted in the air—itself an homage to Marilyn Monroe’s legendary pose in The Seven Year Itch. More than a shot-by-shot experiment like Gus Van Sant’s Psycho, The Lady in Red unequivocally demonstrates that the right casting and right tone are everything when it comes to copy-pasting. As the thirsty protagonist, Jean Rochefort delivers his usual stiff-upper-lip energy to the original, which makes it hard for the audience to relate to his pathetic desperation. Wilder, on the other hand, goes full Leo Bloom once again, the character’s anxiety and cluelessness pouring out of every pore. As director, screenwriter and star, Wilder infuses his film with a more relatable, tragic quality for his main man, even if we don’t agree with his goals. The addition of the great Gilda Radner as a frumpy but devious co-worker who’s increasingly pissed off because she thinks Wilder’s character keeps hitting on her, is also a big plus.
Boudu Saved from Drowning (1932)
Anyone who’s seen a handful of Jean Renoir films will attest to the famous auteur’s fascination with examining unfair class structures, mocking the bourgeoisie all the while. And Boudu Saved from Drowning is an underseen work from Renoir that covers his favorite themes with a slightly lighter tone from, say, The Rules of the Game, about a well-to-do family rescuing a drowning vagrant (Michel Simon) and growing fond of him, enough to “civilize” him into becoming part of the bourgeoisie. Co-writer/director Paul Mazursky takes Renoir’s biting but levelheaded comedy and turns it into a bug-eyed, mocking satire about the vast class and income inequality in Los Angeles, a city that’s become even more ravaged by the gap between the rich and poor since the remake’s release in 1986. The well-meaning but clueless rich family in the original turn into raging narcissists played spectacularly by Bette Midler and Richard Dreyfuss. Simon’s lovable Chaplin-like tramp in the French version is turned into Nick Nolte’s raving, drunken, sometimes incomprehensible bum. Down and Out in Beverly Hills isn’t necessarily a better film than Boudu, but the stark difference in tonal and satirical approach make them different enough experiences to warrant such a solid remake.
La Cage aux Folles (1978)
The 1978 film that gave birth to the 1996 Mike Nichols hit—known for its uproarious performance by Nathan Lane—itself was adapted from a popular play, a zany comedy of errors about a gay couple acting straight for their conservative soon-to-be in-laws. As much as the stereotypical depictions of the gay characters in both films are dated, they make the wise decision of having the audience relate primarily to the gay couple (Robin Williams joins Lane in The Birdcage) with the joke on the other couple (Gene Hackman and Diane Wiest), whose self-absorbed cluelessness keeps them from seeing what’s clearly in front of them. Nichols is a master at cinematic adaptations of plays, so he sticks to the characters and the performances despite the big budget pedigree of the production. Williams graciously dials down his usual manic energy in order to let Lane shine, and Hackman and Wiest are hilariously deadpan.
Fanfare of Love (1935)
This cross-dressing farce, perhaps the best-known title in Billy Wilder’s formidable filmography, is the madcap story of two desperate musicians (Jack Lemmon and Tony Curtis) trying to pass as women to get away from a mob hit. It’s also slightly based on 1935’s Fanfare of Love: Wilder pretty much only applied that film’s central premise to his, even adding a mob plot that wasn’t in the original. Fanfare of Love was remade before Some Like It Hot, as a 1951 German production, which actually provided the bigger chunk of inspiration for Wilder’s classic. But it all started with the French flick.