The Trouble With Harry Is a Lack of Suspense
The scene that opens the new French thriller With a Friend Like Harry . . . is a cloying, claustrophobic, bourgeois brand of hell that's familiar to many. On a sweltering summer day, an attractive, 30ish vacationing couple barrel down the highway in a creaky, un-air-conditioned automobile. It's broiling inside the car, and its inhabitants are sweaty and disheveled. In the back seat sit three cranky, fidgety girls, all under the age of 5. They whine and screech, driving their parents up a wall. One kid kicks and pummels the back of the driver's seat. Her irritated father, Michel (Laurent Lucas), tells her gently but firmly to cut it out. She continues to thwack at his seat; he begins to yell. This takes up about five minutes of screen time.
And you thought French movies were all flowers and romance and sophisticated bedroom farce.
Anyway, Michel visits the washroom at a rest stop and is approached by an old classmate he can't quite place, a freewheeling bachelor with a broad grin named Harry (Spanish actor Sergi López, a dead ringer for Tom Green Show sidekick Phil Giroux) who seems to recall Michel quite fondly. Harry invites himself and his va-va-voom fiancée, Plum (Sophie Guillemin), to Michel's vacation house in the countryside for "a drink," which I guess is what the French say when they want to avail themselves of your hospitality for weeks on end. Because Plum seems to take an interest in the kids ("Would you girls like a lolly?" she offers. "Ouiiiiiiiiiiii!" they squeal in response.), Michel's no-nonsense, overburdened wife, Claire (Mathilde Seigner), agrees to put up with these unexpected guests.
Harry's kind of an oddball--he slurps down raw eggs after orgasm to enhance his virility, and he can recite from memory the overwrought, feverish attempts at verse that Michel penned for their high school's literary magazine (unnerving, considering that the poet himself can barely recall his own words). He's independently wealthy and lavishes inappropriate gifts upon his hosts (such as a new SUV when their car breaks down). In real life, Harry would probably be written off as mildly eccentric, but because this is a movie you wait for the other shoe to drop.
Turns out, Harry is an alter ego of sorts for Michel, the kind of guy Michel wishes he was (vigorous, resourceful, capable) instead of who he is--a tied-down language instructor with an acid-tongued spouse and a passel of restless kids. He's an adult with a family of his own but he can't even stand up to his meddling retiree parents, who take it upon themselves to remodel their son and daughter-in-law's bathroom in a deep, flushed pink--a garishly wussy hue that mocks their spineless scion. As Michel's ersatz id, Harry champions his friend, encouraging Michel to begin writing again and dutifully protecting his interests--at all costs, as it turns out. Even though he's his own self-sustaining, separate character, Harry has to be an extension of Michel. Why else would Harry be so preoccupied with this dull dad?
Director Dominik Moll positions With a Friend Like Harry . . . as a vaguely Hitchcockian nail-biter--its title alone brings to mind the Hitchcock black comedy The Trouble With Harry--but anyone with half a brain can see that this little mutual-admiration thing that the guys have going will probably result in blood being spilled and corpses piling up. Ultimately, the film's predictability kills its suspense. Besides, with its peculiar emphasis on white-guy angst (a reaction against conformity and a "feminized" society reminiscent of the Beat movement), the film has more in common with, say, Fight Club than it does with Strangers on a Train.
What Harry does best is maintain a perspective on domesticity that's frank but accepting, if not necessarily overtly affectionate. As much as the viewer is encouraged to identify with Michel's frustration with family life, we're never won over by Harry's slash-and-burn tactics, no matter how effective they turn out to be. Director Moll also resists plying us with cute kids, cuddly pets, or any other shameless ploys meant to engage viewer empathy. Sure, you can see why the protagonist longs to be free of all his annoying responsibilities, but then there's the flip side of the arrangement: He's got two houses, a nice family, a steady job, a pretty, intelligent wife, attentive parents, and a fabulous, newly remodeled bathroom that's as warm and comforting as the womb from which he sprung. Poor him in- deed.