It has been noted many times before, but anyone finding themselves stuck watching René Gainville's 1979 French farce The Associate (L'Associé) will be reminded once again that there is nothing quite as bad as a comedy that fails to be funny. Stranded somewhere between genuinely dumb slapstick, social farce, and cultural-political satire, this tone-deaf leftover from the dawn of a relatively low period overall in le cinéma français is lame and tacky in almost every way imaginable; say what you will about Jerry Lewis and his French admirers, but the lethargy and clumsiness on display here make anything by the original nutty professor look like a sharp, deft charmer.
There is an interesting theme at the core of the film--that of scapegoating and compartmentalized personalities. Julien Pardot (Michel Serrault) is a frustrated advertising exec who, after being fired, sets himself up as a financial counselor. When clients fail to materialize, he takes a cue from the boss that let him go, who blamed an "associate" for the decision, and invents an "associate" of his own--Walter C. Davis, an Englishman. Mr. Davis is, of course, everything the bourgeois and mild-mannered M. Pardot is not; fearless, dynamic, spontaneous. Mr. Davis is bold enough to take the responsibility (and blame) for big risks, and his gambles pay off. Pardot, in partnership with "Davis," becomes king of the stock market; business thrives, his family enjoys its newfound extreme prosperity, and the world is knocking at his door. But when the pressure of maintaining the charade under the increasingly avid curiosity of bankers, the wealthy, and heads of state threatens to overwhelm him, Pardot has to take some drastic action to get rid of his now burdensome "associate."
Somewhere in the jumbled mess that is The Associate, there is some sort of commentary on a specifically French issue (the divide in the national identity, as the greedy Reagan-Thatcher '80s approached, between staunch French socialism and nouveau-riche arrivisme) and a more general look at the perpetual human wish to have more than one identity--not to be stuck irreversibly with our choices and find ourselves tied down to just one personality, job, family, career, etc. Unfortunately, any potential insight or humor that might be mined from these promising conflicts is buried beneath a layer of forced, zany goofiness so thick and cheesy you could dip your tortilla chips in it. (The only punchline that might make you laugh, however ruefully, is the fact that the film was remade in the U.S. in 1996 as The Associate, starring Whoopi Goldberg and Dianne Wiest--an unappealing idea that the original will decidedly not change your mind about.) Every scene seems to be played as broadly as possible, and the result is loud, abrasive, and charmless. The visuals are just serviceable and mediocre, and the editing and music are almost bizarrely dated; one memorably awful montage sequence, in which Pardot sets up his new office, is quick-cut to a terrible, casino-synthetic cover version of "Money Honey" that is all the proof anyone will need if they want to drag out the old cliché about French rock 'n roll being by nature incapable of either rocking or rolling.
The most disappointing thing about the entire mess is the co-writing involvement of longtime European scriptwriting guru Jean-Claude Carrière, who has collaborated to great effect on scripts with everyone from Luis Bunuel (on Belle de Jour and The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie) to Michael Haneke (Carrière was script consultant on The White Ribbon) and has sole screenwriting credit on Phillip Kaufman's Unbearable Lightness of Being and Jonathan Glazer's great, misunderstood Birth. It is impossible to tell exactly what Carrière's contribution was, or how much of it made it into the shooting script and final film, but The Associate is a blot on an otherwise impressive resumé.
The 1.85:1 transfer is fairly poor. Somewhat grainy and dull, appears to utilize a vault print with little clean-up, and there are instances of aliasing and reel change markings throughout. Docked an extra point for being non-anamorphic.
The Dolby digital 2.0 soundtrack is the disc's best technical aspect, with reliably clear and proportionate sound.
There is very little to be rescued from the wreck that is The Associate, and try as I might, I cannot think of even one little diamond--a line, a performance, anything--that someone could find buried in all this grimy coal. It is just another comedy that cannot be bothered to actually be funny and so tries to mug, contort, and flail its way into your heart. If you consider yourself a spectator who can be relied upon to giggle reflexively at even the most thudding, groan-worthy sub-sitcom jokes and actions, this might be worth a desultory try. Otherwise, everyone can happily Skip It.