Everyone who has ever felt abused or exploited by capricious, arbitrary bosses - and who hasn't? - can derive sneaky, heartening satisfaction from "The Toy." A surprisingly astute and thoughful farce, it uses an outrageous comic premise to clarify outrages commonly endured and deeply resented by that human sub-species, the wage-slave.
It is the first feature written and directed by Francis Veber, who came to prominence as a co-writer on the "Tall Blond Man" comedies. Pierre Richard, who played the tall blond man also stars in "The Toy," a 1976 French production opening today at the Outer Circle.
Richard's ability to sidestep into absurb behavior while retaining a basically grave, sincere and sympathetic personality makes him the ideal embodiment of Veber's protagonist, an unusually sensitive and self-respecting patsy.
Richard enters as a neatly dressed but bearded job-seeker in a newspaper editor's office. He is offered a job on the condition that he sacrifice the beard. When he politely objects, the editor acknowledges the point but confides that beards are anathema to the publisher, who takes a keen interest in the day-to-day operation.
We get a devastating example of how this proprietor operates on the hero's first day on the job. Now cleanshaven, Richard and a photographer report to a luncheon outside a factory also owned by the publisher. The new reporter learns that it will be mainly a photo story; he'll supply captions for the ceremonial candids.
But the great man is late, and the luncheon is well along when the eminent M. Rambal-Cochet finally arrives, in the benignly sinister form of Michel Bouquet. Probably best remembered for his role as the jealous, homicidal bourgeois husband in Claude Chabrol's "La Femme Infidele," Bouquet is a pale, balding, placid type who can manipulate his beady little eyes and thin little mouth into startling expressions of glowering malice or smug satisfaction.
He takes his seat at the head of a long table. Since his chair is not next to the tables, he reaches out and pulls the table closer to him, thereby inconveniencing everyone else by shifting plates one person nearer the boss.
There are no complaints. While the boss begins his lunch, the other diners try to adjust by passing plates back down the line. It's typical of his style that Veber's final Visual gag for this situation is unemphatically, logically funny: a shot of the diners orginally seated at the far end of the table, now continuing lunch with their plates in their laps, since they no longer have a share of table.
Meeting his new employe for the first time, Bouquet informs Richard, "Our paper is one big happy family. That's why the public likes it. That's why I like it." Innocuous words have rarely sounded so bloodcurdling, and the boss soon displays more benign despotism. An employe passes him in a corridor, dutifully says hello and shakes hands. The publisher suddenly looks offended. Moments later he has ordered the importunate wretch fired. The motive: sweaty hands.
The specter of widespread unemployment and inertia among middle-class professionals haunts this satirical comedy as much as it haunted the business intrigues and romantic entanglements that led to tragedy in Claude Sautet's "Mado."
Our hero's second assignment proves decisively disillusioning: He attends a toy fair at a department store also owned by the publisher. While browsing around one of the displays, Richard is approached by a determined-lookiing child surrounded by a group of solicitous grown-ups. The child instantly decides that he wants "that," pointing at Richard. No other "toy" will appease him.
The store manager takes Richard aside and explains that the impossible brat is the son of Rambal-Cochet. He'd appreciate it if the journalist would help humor the kid, for the sake of both their jobs. Richard is packed in a crate and sent to the Rambal-Cochet estate, where he takes up temporary residence as the young master's favorite plaything.
The child, of course, ironically reflects the methods of his father, who has thousands of human toys at his disposal. Outrageous as the premise is, Veber takes considerable pains to rationalize it psychologically. Richard rarely seems like the innocent, put-upon boob Jerry Lewis would have in the same dilemma. He's drawn briefly into the Rambal-Cochet menagerie out of bewilderment and curiosity and compassion. He's susceptible to the appeal that his refusal might cost other men their jobs, and he even takes a liking to the brat, perceiving the salvageable personality beneath the domineering gestures.
Moreover, there's a streak of mischief in his own personality that responds to the little boy's defiance of his hideous pop (with whom he resides only a few weeks each year, we learn). Determined to quit the Rambal-Cochet organization anyway, the journalist enters into the spirit of some of the kid's shenanigans, playing the fool in a calculated way that permits him to score a few parting shots at the expense of petty tyranny.
In striking contrast to the filmmakers responsible for a hectic, cynical comedy like "The In-Laws," Veber has though out the implications of his material so conscientiously that the farce evolves into melancholy social parable. And in the same way that Mel Brooks' "Silent Movie" impressed witty people in the film industry as a documentary, "The Toy" may look to some viewers like a simple confirmation of everyday reality.
As a matter of fact, it may confirm an outlook shared by most wage-earners who often go to their graves resenting the caprices of bosses and the dependency or sycophancy that can make a curse of making a living. But Richard's character preserves the virtues of common decency and healing good humor as clearly as Chaplin's character was meant to in "Modeern Times."
Despite an affinity for deft, meticulous comic effects, Veber lets a little slack creep into some of the episodes, especially the playroom episodes between Richard and the little boy, Fabrice Greco. He has also failed to end the story decisively, a peculair last-second breakdown on the part of such a generally logical, conclusive humorist. "The Toy" is one of those movies that doesn't so much end as stop in its tracks, with a suitable denouement hanging somewhere in the ether. But by that time Veber has taken his film much further than one could have anticipated.
"The Toy" is a fascinating new example of a seriously playful movie. CAPTION: Picture, Pierre Richard in "The Toy"