Friday, August 24, 2001

Movie: With a Friend Like Harry

Posted on Fri, Aug 24, 2001 at 4:00 AM

Our Rating: 3.50

When all votes are tallied, 2001 will go down in film history as the year of the Houseguest from Hell. Ben Kingsley showed up on Ray Winstone's doorstep in "Sexy Beast," carrying the gift of never-ending abuse the way some people bring aromatherapy candles. His closest competitor for the bad-company crown is Sergi Lopez, whose character of Harold Ballestero -- the title pal in the French domestic thriller "With a Friend Like Harry" -- wreaks havoc on the grown-up life of his childhood idol, a classmate named Michel (Laurent Lucas). And it all happens because of a chance reunion in a roadside men's room.

Harry is on his way to Switzerland at the time; Michel (who only remembers his old school chum after considerable prodding) is taking his wife (Mathilde Seigner) and children to the summer house they've been fixing up in the French countryside. Harry has his girlfriend with him, a cheerful bundle of cleavage named Plum (Sophie Gullemin). Their relationship appears to be based on Ã? well, let's just say she affectionately refers to him as Dick.

The Swiss excursion temporarily put aside, the couples get acquainted at the farmhouse, where Harry reveals several disturbing traits. One is a gift for inappropriate conversation; another is an encyclopedic memory of Michel's adolescent accomplishments, including his awful poetry ("beautiful," Harry rhapsodizes) and science-fiction stories. Getting Michel to re-embrace his creativity and improve his station becomes Harry's cause celebre. But he has a strange, even sinister idea of how to go about it.

German-born, French-based director Dominik Moll (who wrote "Harry" with Gilles Marchand) puts a satisfying polish on the standard-issue theme of an innocent whose world is rent asunder by a well-meaning psychotic. Moll submits Harry as a complex, three-dimensional villain whose actions stem from a cornucopia of phobias and resentments. The seductive Lopez is barely recognizable from his turn as the sheepish paramour in Frédéric Fonteyne's "An Affair of Love," which was screened at the 2000 Florida Film Festival. Here, he's sly and smoldering, his congenital squint now the thin dam that holds back a torrent of rage.

The movie balances straightforward, Hitchcockian suspense with intellectual musings that veer toward the surreal. Witness the apparition of a flying monkey that haunts Michel's darkest hour. This is also the only film in memory to employ a Mitsubishi 4x4 as a symbol of Dionysian excess. Talk about your unnatural drives. Like most of Harry, it gets us where we need to go.


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