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Agent seeks his man in OSS 117: Lost in Rio
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Dujardin resembles Connery, furry chest and all.
Dujardin resembles Connery, furry chest and all.

The French spy spoof OSS 117: Lost in Rio made me laugh, but it has problems, including the one Mel Brooks struggled with in his Hitchcock sendup High Anxiety: How do you make fun of films that don't take themselves all that seriously in the first place? The lampoon Airplane! worked in part because of the deadly solemnity of its source material, the ludicrous Airport films. But with his silly cameos and train-going-into-the-tunnel gags, Hitchcock alerted audiences to the fact that he was deftly kidding them, even as he was scaring them witless. Brooks' solution was to make a film that's more homage than satire. The singular result: The source material is funnier than the spoof.

Which brings me to spy films, and especially the James Bond series. They'll never be mistaken for Hitchcock, but part of their enduring appeal is likewise their knowing self-parody - the absurd gadgets, the leering jokes. That's especially true of late-model Roger Moore films (Octopussy, indeed), but even the films starring Sean Connery, whom we remember as a tougher, sleeker Bond, don't shy from the schtick (Pussy Galore, indeed).

OSS 117: Lost in Rio (a sequel to the memorably titled OSS 117: Cairo, Nest of Spies) has the Connery films in its sights, and it gets many particulars right. Especially, droll Jean Dujardin as the self-absorbed spy Hubert Bonisseuer de la Bath, or OSS 117 for short, resembles Connery's Bond, down to the furry chest. Similarly, there's a female spy who's beautiful and supremely competent (Louise Monot) and an arch-villain with a sinister lab (Rüdiger Vogler's Von Zimmel, an escaped Nazi). Even the 1960s look of the film is perfect, down to the projected scenery whizzing by in the car-chase scenes.

Like the Bond films, OSS 117 has globetrotting locales. Most of it takes place in Brazil, where Hubert is tracking down Von Zimmel. That mission is the source of one of my favorite jokes, when Hubert visits the German embassy and politely asks employees whether they maintain a list of fugitive Nazis in Brazil. But Hubert's mission is almost incidental to the proceedings; director and co-writer Michel Hazanavicius is more interested in supplying a rat-a-tat frenzy of gags à la Airplane! and Top Secret! We're alerted to that early on, when a pair of animated birds sweetly alight on a windowsill, then begin humping madly.

Hazanavicius isn't quite after Airplane!-style absurdism, though, much less the extravagant weirdness of the Austin Powers films. Instead OSS 117 seems to be specifically targeting - and here's another problem - the retrograde sexism and racism of the 1960s Bond films. That would be great, except that the way the film ridicules racism and sexism is, well, racist and sexist. A smarter film might have figured out a more nuanced approach. At one point Hubert is incredulous that the Mossad also is after Von Zimmel. "Hunt Nazis with Jews?" Hubert asks. "He'll recognize you by your noses." Is that a joke about anti-Semitism, or is it an anti-Semitic joke? I'm afraid that in films, as in poker, the cards speak for themselves.

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