Astérix aux Jeux Olympiques (‘Asterix at the Olympic Games’, Frédéric Forestier, Thomas Langmann, 2008)

Throwing out the menhir with the bathwater

I had feared this would happen. After the comedy brilliance of Astérix & Obélix: Mission Cléopâtre (‘Mission Cleopatra’ from 2002) – a film containing successful jokes, hilarious performances and a knowing, canny script – the series has returned to its roots of tepid, lackluster kid’s movies.

It’s telling that Albert Uderzo, one of the two creators of the original comic, was displeased with Mission Cléopâtre and blocked further attempts by the same film making crew. Director Alain Chabat went out, in came Forestier and Langmann. They barely manage to bungle their way through a convoluted 2,5 hour script that makes a mess of its basic plot. I wonder if Uderzo was this time pleased with the result. Perhaps he was. I suspect he knows far more about making comics than making films.

There’s no unity of elements. Astérix aux Jeux Olympiques lacks a basic elegance. It pits the deep, instant talents of respected French nestor Alain Delon (Caesar) against the wacky antics of Benoît Poelvoorde (his son Brutus). It’s like these two characters occupy completely different films. The new Astérix is rather bland, though that says little about the talents of newcomer Clovis Cornillac against exeunt Christian Clavier. A constant in the proceedings is Gérard Depardieu as Obélix, but even he seems to cruise through on automatic. The script barely manages to squeeze the two sympathetic heroes in there.

The plot is a frightfully dull affair of a love-struck Gaul from the village seeking the hand of a Greek princess, necessitating going up against competitor Brutus in the Olympic games. Astérix and Obélix seem relegated to cheering him on from the side. A great deal is made of Brutus’ desire to kill Caesar to inherit the throne, but his assassination attempts are painfully trite. This film trades the sharp humor and smart pop culture references (not to mention the tasteful mise-en-scène) of its forebear for gross face-pulling and laugh-or-I’ll-shoot comedy. There’s a scene in which a character inexplicably finds a Lightsaber in the den of an alchemist, activates it and poses. Ha, ha, isn’t that funny? It’s a reference to Star Wars! Material like this is the surest sign of a dried-up well.

Observant moviegoers may note that Mission Cléopâtre had its own Star Wars reference, but consider how carefully that joke was laid out: throughout the film we see the helmet of Roman general Céplus, but it isn’t until the music changes to John Williams’ Imperial March that we realize it is shaped like Darth Vader’s. Céplus then exclaims “quand on l’attaque... l’empire contre-attaque”, subtly incorporating the French title of The Empire Strikes Back. It’s a thoughtful, well-executed joke.

As if the creators of this disaster understood they were treading water, at the end of the film Numérobis makes a cameo, remised by one-armed French comedian Jamel Debbouze. He was one of the many highlights of the last movie and tries to infuse some of its glory into this mess. It fails, because the tone doesn’t fit. I would gladly see a full feature of Debbouze lunging at a ball to impress upon a lady his making out skills, but in here it’s an incongruous display. I have little hope for the latest Asterix film, Astérix et Obélix: Au Service de Sa Majesté (‘God Save Britannia’), which by all signs continues on the same foot. Apart from the delightfully anarchic Mission Cléopâtre, this franchise has wasted its potential, smothered by its original creator.

Roderick Leeuwenhart

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