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'Just Visiting'? Good. Go Home.

By Stephen Hunter
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, April 6, 2001

   


    'Just Visiting' Jean Reno and Christina Applegate in "Just Visiting." (Walt Disney)
Ah, the Middle Ages: pestilence, ordure, slaughter and T-shirts made of chain.

That lovely epoch impinges upon our own in the curiously unfunny "Just Visiting," which turns out to be about two wild 'n' crazy guys from the 11th century who end up in today's Chicago, where this movie's level of humor demands that they wash their faces in a toilet bowl.

It's based on the most successful movie the French ever made, and if only you could blame the usual suspects, the parvenus of Hollywood, for crushing a delicate Gallic bloom. But you can't, because the French themselves seem to have all too willingly enjoyed desecrating their own creation. One hopes the pay was good.

"Les Visiteurs," Jean-Marie Gaubert's 1993 film, followed the adventures of the Duke of Anjou, Thibault (Jean Reno), and his goofy manservant Andre (Christian Clavier) in modern-day Paris, where an errant wizard had inadvertently deposited them. In "Just Visiting" of 2001 (or of 2000, its original release date) the movie, directed by the same Jean-Marie Gaubert, follows the same two lummoxes, again played by Reno and Clavier, only this time the Wizard has dumped them in present-day Chicago. He's also taught them English. Those wacky wizards.

So, much of the fun of the film, when it offers fun, follows immediately upon the French original, which itself follows from the classic oeuvreof the farceurs of the grand French tradition, Les Trois Stooges. That is, a lot of it is low, crude, admittedly comic in the rudest positive sense, which involves a lot of falling down to humorous effect. You can imagine how daunted the two time travelers are by an automobile (they think it's a dragon). Airplanes paralyze them, while urinals seem the holiest of accomplishments. In fancy restaurants, they belch and pass wind and throw bones on the floor. In one inspired moment of zaniness, the moronic Andre tries to roast a chicken on an umbrella.

But Thibault's aristocratic self-assurance soon clicks in, and soon he's lording it, as he believes is his God-given right, over poor cowering Andre, who is used to running behind the horse -- a slightly different ordeal when the horse is mechanical, traveling 60 mph down the Dan Ryan Expressway.

Alas, there's a story, too, and I mean other than the feckless fall-down-go-boom stuff, which is at least occasionally funny. It seems that Thibault's arrival has been arranged in response to a political crisis in his own century: A witch, in the employ of a conniving noble competitor, has enchanted him, leading him to stab his beloved fiancee Rosalind (Christina Applegate), for which he has been sentenced to face the axman. The wizard (Malcolm McDowell), a political ally if an idiot, is trying to return him to a point in time where he can prevent his enchantment; he simply dumps Thibault in the wrong corridor in time.

Thibault ends up in Chicago under the feeble pretext that it is in the Windy City that his preserved bedroom (from the old castle) is on display in a museum. It turns out this donation was masterminded by his great-great-many-times-great-granddaughter Julia – Applegate again, looking paler than she did in the 11th century – and so he quickly makes her acquaintanceship, then earns her friendship and ultimately her loyalty.

It turns out that Julia, the last heiress to the fabulous, ancient Malfret fortune, is just about to dispose of it at the insistence of her controlling boyfriend Hunter (Matt Ross). But this, we learn, is a scam; Hunter is using Julia to get her money while he's secretly in love with Amber, a curvaceous mouth-breather played by poor Mrs. Pete Sampras (Bridgette Wilson-Sampras), who seems to have inherited this niche in Hollywood casting fancy.

So the tiny little arc of story chronicles two emotional developments: how, under the influence of the heroic knight, Julia finds the strength to defy her dominating, treacherous boyfriend; and how the peasant servant Andre makes the intellectual breakthrough that enables him to conceive of himself as a man, not a servant.

But neither of these stories really convinces. Applegate is too wan, and the putatively smarmy Ross hardly ever seems consequential. As for Clavier, one of the great screen comedians of Europe (and a co-author of both this screenplay and the original), he doesn't register with any particular force. He's a shaggy, ill-defined presence, and his abnegation, while funny, grows plaintive. Only Reno, magnificent behind that rumbly baritone voice, truly knightly and majestic, stands out in the film.

Indeed, "Just Visiting" is far better in its expensive evocation of the 11th century than in its endless visit in ours.

"Just Visiting" (90 minutes) is rated PG-13 for sexuality and violence.

 

Copyright 2001 The Washington Post Company


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