"Robert et Robert," a French import at the K-B Janus and Baronet West, may beguile customers who don't mind surrendering to the dithering whimsies of Claude Lelouch for what seems like several misspent lifetimes. All others would be well advised to beware.
The two Roberts are meant to be endearing losers. Robert Goldman, played by the craggy, abrasive Charles Denner, is a fussy, irritable cabbie. Robert Villiers, played by the moon-faced Jacques Villeret, is a timorous rookie patrolman. Conspicuously ineligible bachelors who reside with their widowed mothers, the two Roberts meet while seeking female companionship through a dating service, where they remain the principal hardship cases of matchmaker Jean-Claude Brialy.
These wallflowers form an eccentric friendship that Lelouch presumably intended to be poignantly funny. But the filmmaker himself proves such an inept matchmaker and negligible humorist that one soon wearies of his would-be lovable odd couple. Lelouch accentuates the dreary by developing their friendship at a small's pace -- and an absentminded snail's pace at that, retarded by frequent gaps in continuity, backtracking and garrulous digression. rThe effect is similar to watching grass grow -- and wilt at the same time.
Lelouch's thought-processes have always been perilously saccharine. As he ages, Lelouch appears to be losing the audio-visual dexterity that made his synthetic calculations attractive in "A Man and a Woman," the early international hit that remains the high point of his shallow career.
Perhaps "Robert et Robert" should be regarded as the last gasp of the buddy film. Lelouch must have been thinking in terms of Laurel & Hardy, whom one of the characters cites as an inspiration at one point. Denner's raspy officiousness and Villeret's cherubic chubbiness come closer to suggesting a feckless reincarnation of Abbot & Costello. In a similar respect, Lelouch must have had the masterful comedies of Ernst Lubitsch and Sacha Guitry somewhere in the back of his fluttery mind while inventing "Robert et Robert," but he never achieves a magical light touch.
There are sporadic signs of wit, like Denner's wacky description of "Taxi Driver" as "a musical comedy about New York City taxi drivers." And in marginal roles three serenely impressive women -- restaurateur Regine, playing Villeret's mother; Macha Meril, Godard's erstwhile "Married Woman," playing a TV talk-show hostess, and Michele Morgan, playing herself being briefly interviewed by Meril -- make Lelouch's preoccupation with the nondescript Roberts seem even more idle.
For some ineffable reason the movie begins with a legend under Lelouch's signature testifying that "this is a true story." The claim seems acutely pointless after the story has unfolded in all its rumpled, smeary insignificance. It would be far more useful to quote the definitive inspirational line in the movie: "Smile. Life really is beautiful, Robert." Or better yet, the statement of theme attributed to Lelouch in the distributor's plot synopsis: "Every person has a gift and as soon as he puts his finger on it every door will opens [sic]. From that point on he will find himself on the side of the victorious."