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The Associate

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What is it about middling French flicks that makes them such seductive targets for Hollywood remakes? It can’t be their heightened Gallic naughtiness, since American movies are plenty saucy. Maybe the endless need for fresh material is all that’s behind the recent vogue for turning obscure Continental comedies into bland American ones (Mike Nichols’ reworking of La Cage aux Folles as The Birdcage excepted).

The current example: the Disney-produced Whoopi Goldberg vehicle The Associate, which is based on The Associate, a sedate comedy starring Michel Serrault (the drag-queen mate in La Cage) as a budding investment analyst who invents an imaginary, tres brilliant partner because no one will take him seriously. When his wife falls for the nonexistent wiz, Serrault plots to kidnap and kill his own phantom.

To a clever premise already brimming with Pirandellian comedic possibilities, the Disney version adds a feminist slant by casting Whoopi in the Serrault role. A bigger budget provides glossy production values, along with a strong supporting cast that includes Tim Daly, Dianne Wiest, and Bebe Neuwirth (who models a lot of underthings, proving that in this case, we’re even naughtier than the French). But director Donald Petrie and screenwriter Nick Thiel drop the ball on this expanded playing field, often paying more attention to financial-world intricacies than the mechanics of farce. The plot briefly explodes when Goldberg impersonates her partner (a twist not in the original) but then collapses into feel-good sentiment.

Whoopi tosses off even stale one-liners (”Baby, if I was premenstrual, you’d be dead!”) with her usual panache. Aside from her delivery, however — and one laugh-out-loud sight gag when she uses a bottle of mouthwash for an impressive display at a urinal — very little is gained in this translation. The Associate: C+ The Associate (French version): C