Life was so much simpler in 1967. For a brief moment, everyone loved Israel, the plucky little country that fended off attacks from all its much larger, more powerful neighbors. With the U.S. involved in an unpopular war in Vietnam, it was comfortable for progressives to view the Israelis as a model for the Third World, a nation too tough to take crap from the big boys.
It was also a time when super-duper spies like James Bond were still in fashion, bedding beautiful women, custom-blending their martinis and dispatching heinous villains with bullets and one-liners. The Bondian hero was already the object of much spoofing (reaching its nadir with “Casino Royale” in ’67), but that was coals to Newcastle because Sean Connery’s Bond was already a self-knowing self-parody in the making. So what are we to make of a film made in the 21st century that tries to revive the sub-subgenre, situating its new film in that epochal year?
“OSS 117 – Lost in Rio” is the second in a series of French films that revived a Gallic Bond contemporary by recreating him as a sexist, racist, narcissistic idiot. Repeating their efforts of the 2006 “OSS 117 – Cairo, Nest of Spies,” director Michel Hazanavicius and co-writer Jean Halin dispatched their numbskull hero, Hubert Bonisseur de la Bath (Jean Dujardin), to Rio where he finds himself teamed with a beautiful Mossad agent, Doris Kuleshov (Louise Monot), in a search for Colonel von Zimmel (Rudiger Vogler), a notorious Nazi war criminal. Von Zimmel’s front is his career as a wrestling promoter, but of course he is planning to revive the Reich. (The only reason for his choice of professions seems to be Hazanavicius’s odd notion that men in suits wearing lamé masks are somehow inherently hilarious.)
Hazanavicius and Halin have chosen shrewdly in setting the film outside the Middle East, away from the real story of 1967 and Israel, and in making the bad guys Nazis. As the director himself notes in the film’s press notes, directly confronting the reality of the post-1967 Middle East would force him to deal with the politics of the contemporary Israeli-Palestinian conflict, and that would require the kind of difficult choices that would resist the kind of lowbrow humor that is the engine driving this franchise.
And, indeed, the Mossad agents in this film are probably the most likeable and competent characters on display. OSS 117 himself is a dolt; his American friend from the CIA is a vulgar, crude lout and a creepy opportunist. Von Zimmel is a whining, conniving lunatic, but even he is more admirable than de la Bath if only because he really believes in his goofy delusions. Vogler gets to spout lines like, “We don’t need a Fourth Reich — that is an illusion — we need a Fifth Reich; more hate, more violence, more fun,” and even delivers a warped version of Shylock’s big speech from “The Merchant of Venice.”
The problem with “Lost in Rio” isn’t that its humor is offensive. Mel Brooks has certainly destroyed most of the remaining taboos when it comes to comedy about the Nazis, and the actual victims of oppression — the Jews, poor blacks in Rio’s favelas — are treated with affection, even admiration. The real problem with the film is that it just isn’t very funny. Dujardin, who actually emerges as a likeable dope, works very, very hard, and the production team has done a brilliant job of recreating the look and feel of a ’67 widescreen thriller, but “Lost in Rio” is a film with too many running gags that merely stagger. It’s nice to have a French filmmaker show affection for Israel, but with friends like this, oy.
“OSS 117 – Lost in Rio” opens on May 7 at the Angelika Film Center (18 W. Houston St.). For information, call (212) 995-2000 or go to angelikafilmcenter.com.
Signup for our weekly email newsletter here.