Three Fugitives

August 15, 2012

Touchstone had the lucrative notion of remaking a popular French comedy into Three Men and a Baby, thereby producing one of the boffo hits of recent years. Now they’ve selected another French comedy, Les Fugitifs, and decided to Americanize it.

This time they brought in the original writer-director, Francis Veber, to do the makeover. Veber’s films, hugely popular in France, have been getting remade by American moviemakers for years; for instance, his hilarious The Tall Blonde Man with One Black Shoe was rather mysteriously (and, as it turned out, regrettably) transformed into The Man with One Red Shoe. This time, Veber himself is accountable.

I haven’t seen Les Fugitifs, but I have seen Veber’s two other comedies starring the amusingly mismatched pair of hulking Gerard Depardieu and mousy Pierre Richard, Les Comperes and La Chevre. Those movies are predictable but delightful comedies, typically French in their regard for classic slapstick.

In Three Fugitives, the remake of Les Fugitifs, Veber has kept his method constant. This time out, Nick Nolte plays the hulk, and Martin Short plays the mouse. They are certainly enjoyable actors to watch, and the discrepancy in their sizes is automatically funny. But Veber hasn’t made the translation all that smoothly; working secondhand, Veber almost appears to lose interest in all but the physical humor.

Two sequences summon up some laughs. The opening has Nolte paroled from a Washington state prison; a veteran bank robber, he is chauffeured to a Tacoma bank by two cops (James Earl Jones, Alan Ruck) who can’t believe he’ll go legit. (Tacoma provides a sunny backdrop, mixed in with a few jarring Seattle cityscapes.) Inside the bank, Nolte is unfortunately taken hostage by an inept hold-up man, played by Short. The police, of course, think Nolte is up to his old tricks, so both men must go on the lam for the remainder of the movie.

In the other good routine, Short dresses up in women’s clothes to pass as Nolte’s wife. It’s an old shtick, but Short is awfully good at it (he checks his wig in the mirror and expertly judges, “It’s a little too bouffant, isn’t it?”). Other than that, this film is merely amiable, although the late Kenneth McMillan has a funny, dreamy quality as a dotty veterinarian. When Veber drags in Short’s mute daughter (Sarah Rowland Doroff), he tips the scales away from comedy and toward the kind of sentimentality that probably plays better with subtitles.

First published in the Herald, February 2, 1989

Veber’s abilities are somewhat mysterious; I’ve seen some of his movies before they opened and thought, “Wow, he’s really lost it,” only to see those films turn into wild successes. I need not add that in the annals of films shot in Tacoma, this one stands plenty tall.