What’s in a Name, from writer/director duo Alexandre de La Patellière and Matthieu Delaporte, is one of the biggest blockbusters in the history of French film and had a bigger opening weekend in Europe than The Avengers. It opened in New York and on VOD and iTunes on December 13th to mostly positive reviews. Naturally, I had Matt Lieb check it out. -Vince
A rose by any other name would smell as Seinfeld
For the sake of transparency, and in order to temper my guilt for writing a lukewarm film review, I need to admit to any person reading this that I am not an experienced film critic, nor am I a fan of most films that have been adapted from the theater (or Théâtre). I urge you to please take my opinion with a grain of salt. That being said, What’s in a Name? is a story about five French people drinking wine and arguing about fascism.
The film stars the devilishly handsome and cartoonishly French-looking Patrick Bruel, who plays Vincent Larchet, a wealthy real estate agent and expecting father. Vincent embodies the affluent-conservative-philistine caricature that I believe is required by French law for all French plays. He is rich, handsome, privileged, dumb, has expensive taste in wine and is a bit of a prankster.
What’s in a Name? (Le Prénome) primarily takes place at a wine-soaked dinner party in the apartment of Vincent’s sister Élisabeth, who is played by the hilarious Valérie Benguigui, and Pierre Garaud-Larchet, played by the equally funny Charles Berling. Pierre is a self-righteous and sanctimonious college professor who is obsessed with his image of being the smartest, most correct person in the room. He is French smugness incarnate. The brunt of his smugness is often borne by his wife Élisabeth, a middle school French teacher who is used to being disrespected both inside and outside the classroom. They are also joined by Élisabeth’s childhood BFF Claude, played by Guillaume de Tonquédec. Claude is a professional musician (well, Trombonist) who, although persistently non-confrontational and unwilling to make waves, has some secrets of his own. The gorgeous and probably talented Judith El Zein plays Vincent’s pregnant wife Anna, the fifth and final guest of the Garaud-Larchet dinner party.
I say “probably talented” because I don’t speak French, and it’s harder for me to judge dramatic acting without speaking the language. But I feel confident in saying that she yelled in French very convincingly. Everyone did! The acting in this film was probably superb! Probably! As with most plays adapted to film, strong performances are usually the biggest qualitative basis by which to judge them. But being that I read most of the words (and the subtitles were expertly placed), I spent most of the film judging the writing, rather than the acting. And that is where I found the most fault. Not with the dialogue, but with the story.
The central conflict of What’s in a Name? is revealed when Vincent tells the other dinner party guests what he intends to name his son. “It starts with an A,” says Vincent as Claude and Pierre try to guess the name of his future son. By now, you have guessed correctly. Vincent intends to name his son Adolphe, which is pronounced Adolf and happens to be the first name of a very bad man from history. This choice in surname sparks outrage with the dinner guests who can’t believe that Vincent could be so callous and insensitive as to name his son after Hitler. Pierre calls him a “fascist” on several occasions, a very comical choice given that Pierre is trying to dictate what Vincent can and cannot name his child. This hilarious, and very well written sequence reads a lot like an episode of Seinfeld. In fact, just imagine the Seinfeld characters superimposed into this exact situation and you’ll pretty much be able to recreate this argument without even having to watch the film.
Kramer (Vincent) informs George (Pierre), Jerry (Claude), and Elaine (Élisabeth) that he has finally chosen a name for his son.
JERRY and GEORGE are sitting on the couch. The intercom buzzes and JERRY walks over to it and speaks.
ELAINE: It’s me.
JERRY: C’mon up.
JERRY buzzes her in and walks away. KRAMER suddenly opens JERRY’s door. The audience cheers.
KRAMER: I got it, Jerry! The perfect name for my son.
He pauses for a moment.
KRAMER: Oh yeah.
GEORGE get up from the couch.
GEORGE: (Incredulously and with concern) You can’t be serious. You can’t name your son Adolf.
KRAMER: And why not?
GEORGE: Why not? What do you mean, why not? BECAUSE! Because you can’t!
KRAMER: Says who?
GEORGE: Says who? SOCIETY! That’s who! What, you think you’re above society?
KRAMER: No, but he’s my son. I’ll name him WHATEVER I WANT!
GEORGE: You can’t do it, Kramer. Can’t do it! Tell ‘em Jerry.
JERRY: You can’t name your son after Adolf Hitler.
KRAMER: Well, of course not! I’m not naming him Adolf.
GEORGE: That’s right you’re not!
KRAMER: No. I’m naming him Adolphe, with a P-H-E at the end.
GEORGE: Adolf with a P-H-E?
KRAMER: Oh yeah.
GEORGE: Is that French?
KRAMER: Qui. I read it in a book.
GEORGE: Oh great, so, so you read one book in your entire life and now you think you rules don’t apply to you? One book and now the entire social structure that’s been delicately growing for generations about what you can and can’t name your children, just collapses beneath you.
JERRY: George is non-plussed.
GEORGE: I’m livid. LIVID, JERRY!
ELAINE enters JERRY’s apartment.
ELAINE: I heard yelling. What’s going on?
GEORGE: I’ll tell you what’s going on. Kramer, has decided to name his first born son Adolf.
ELAINE: Get OUT!
ELAINE pushes GEORGE and he falls to the ground.
The audience cheers.
I want to reiterate that the scenes in which this argument takes place are hilarious and well written. As Seinfeldian as the premise was, it truly did have its own original tone and timbre. It is revealed soon after the argument reaches a boiling point that Vincent was pranking his old friend Pierre, and that he actually intended to name his son Henri. However, this isn’t revealed until after Pierre viciously insults Vincent’s pregnant wife and she retaliates. That’s when the movie stops being Seinfeld and starts morphing into an American soap-opera (in French), complete with trite revelations ranging from a dog murder cover-up, to Claude having an affair with Vincent and Élisabeth’s mother. And these stock arguments and revelations comprise the last 55 minutes of the film. This simple, hilarious joke that Vincent plays on his friends, creates a snowball of wreckage that lasts half of the film’s runtime.
The second half of this film is unbearable. Perhaps What’s in a Name? is a good argument for why Jerry Seinfeld and Larry David should never make Seinfeld into feature film. Because after the premise has run it’s course, you would have to watch them physically and emotionally pick up the pieces. That is much harder to write, and ever harder to watch.
Matt Lieb is a writer, comedian, and Bone Thugs N Harmony one-man cover band in San Francisco. He is a frequent guest of the Filmdrunk Frotcast. His twitter handle is @lieb123456789.