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A Study in Cons

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With movies these days, borderline daring can inspire wild overstatement. The two characters in the French comedy "Priceless" ("Hors de Prix") are semi corrupt, selfish types. Bad guys? No, but the fact that they are a couple of gold diggers have caused more than a couple of critics to compare the film to Ernst Lubitsch's 1932 movie "Trouble in Paradise." "Priceless" is an inoffensive, occasionally entertaining comedy, but that is like someone giving you a cup of Folgers and telling you it's kind of like an espresso.

For instant comedy, though, at least "Priceless" is warm, nicely packaged and not the over-sugared, hyperkinetic kind often produced in this country (see review of "What Happens in Vegas …," page 30). The stage is set when Irene (Audrey Tautou), comely pet of a wealthy but elderly "uncle" who's dozed off early on her birthday, wanders into the empty hotel bar and mistakes a fast-asleep Jean (Gad Elmaleh), the bartender, for one of the wealthy guests. Lustful sparks ensue, and a year later Jean must act the playboy again when Irene shows up at his hotel on another vacation. This time their schemes land both of them in hot water and out of their cushy positions. Reduced to poverty, they must find new benefactors to keep them in shiny clothes and glitzy nightspots while learning that what they've won might not be what they want after all.

Irene and Jean wouldn't know what hit them if they encountered a duo like Herbert Marshall and Miriam Hopkins, who played the two scammers of the upper crust in "Trouble in Paradise." You could claim Irene is similarly unscrupulous, but Tautou's coy, eyelash-batting tactics are a poor substitute for the treacherous sleight-of-tongue displayed by Marshall. The roles are reversed in the French film, with Tautou playing the old hand and Elmaleh the newbie at her knee, but the best advice she can muster for him is to demand as many presents as he can up front.

The letdown here is that Irene and Jean don't try to one-up as much as keep up with each other. Elmaleh isn't even in it for the money, which gives his character little to accomplish. "Priceless" is likable enough for the fabulous clothes, glamorous locales and gentle wit, but a better movie would have offered more about the aging characters Irene and Jean fleece. How much more interesting would their rich and varied experiences be to us than two people who only have a couple of things on their minds. (PG-13) 104 min. S



The release date for "Priceless" has moved to May 30.



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