French comedy doesn't always travel well to the U.S. "La Cage Aux Folles" found a healthy second life on American movie screens as "The Birdcage," but cultural differences caused lesser stateside remakes like "The Toy," "Buddy Buddy," "The Man With One Red Shoe" and "Three Fugitives" to founder.
Then there was "Un indien dans la ville," which rocked Paris but tanked here as "Jungle 2 Jungle" -- even though the Walt Disney Company had swapped star Thierry Lhermitte (also the co-writer and co-producer of the original film) for the bankable Tim Allen.
Still bent on bridging the gap, the Mouse House tries again with "Just Visiting," an adaptation of "Les Visiteurs," the biggest box-office hit in French history. The latter film also drew huge crowds in Asia and Europe in 1993, and a 1998 sequel performed nearly as well.
In a departure from the established procedure, stars Jean Reno and Christian Clavier are back for the remake, as is director Jean-Marie Gaubert. While the results don't approach the hilarious, they certainly do reach the level of "amusing," with moments that stretch toward "funny."
The story starts in medieval England, where French nobleman Thibault Malfete (Reno) is about to marry a lovely Brit named Rosalind (Christina Applegate). When their plans are spoiled by the deployment of an evil potion, a friendly wizard (Malcolm McDowell, slumming) advocates a time-travel experiment to remake events.
The project is a botch job that instead sends the nobleman and his valet, Andr&$233; (Clavier), to 2000 Chicago. There, they reappear in a museum's medieval-history exhibit administered by Rosalind's equally lovely descendant, Julia (Applegate again). Complications, of course, prevent Malfete from returning to his own century.
The knight-out-of-time gags that ensue aren't nearly as topical as the situations Scott Bakula used to encounter on "Quantum Leap." Rather, they fit more closely into the kid-friendly, irony-free Disney mold. The visitors are mystified by the human figures shown on a TV screen; elsewhere, they wash up in a toilet and snack on urinal cakes. Reno, a fine and serious actor ("The Professional"), lends dignity and consistent nobility to the proceedings. Meanwhile, Clavier (co-writer of both the French and American versions) liberally dispenses the juvenile comic relief by eating dog food, kissing people's feet and becoming charmed by the phenomenon of electric lighting. Such strokes wouldn't sustain a TV sitcom for 13 weeks, but they can draw a certain amount of smiles in a light and colorful 85-minute burlesque.
The Disney touch is readily apparent in the little self-esteem lesson that's offered to the romantically distressed Julia -- who said we needed a moral amid these goings-on? -- and in the special-effects sequences that depict the time travelers' appearances and disappearances. But gee whiz, if you're going to complain about filmmakers spending too much money to make you laugh, you're downright un-American.