Would that I could report Laurent Tirard refreshes Moliere as Tom Stoppard renewed Shakespeare.
Alas Moliere, a well-wrought farce about the 17th-century playwright that produces many smiles and little laughter, is no Shakespeare in Love.
Speculating that a thwarted love affair in Moliere's youth provided material for knockabout comedies such as Tartuffe, The Bourgeois Gentleman and The Misanthrope, Tirard's film is on a par with Becoming Jane, the one about Miss Austen's first love. Which is to say, diverting.
Though it might be Moliere for Dummies, it's infinitely more fun than French director Ariane Mnouchkine's tedious 1978 film portrait, a Moliere for Smarties that ran four hours plus and, like Tirard's movie, explored the comedy of tragedy.
As Moliere, born Jean-Baptiste Poquelin, Romain Duris resembles a ferret in a doublet. The actor, best known for The Beat My Heart Skipped, is as tightly wound as an antique watch. Not exactly a virtue in a comedian, but it makes him an ideal messenger for the film's central theme: Can comedy be profound as tragedy?
The film opens in 1657 as the farceur rolls into Paris with his troupe, planning to write and stage a tragedy. When he is whisked off by a messenger who beseeches him to make a deathbed pilgrimage, Moliere flashes back to 1644, when the 21-year-old scribe is sent to debtor's prison.
Let the record show that, yes, Moliere was jailed in 1644 for failure to pay his debts. And that in 1657 he returned to conquer Paris as an actor and playwright.
The rest of what happens during the course of the sumptuously photographed Moliere - his bail is paid by Jordain (Fabrice Luchini), a married merchant who wants the playwright/actor's help in wooing a widowed marquise - is pure invention, braiding boudoir farce with romance with dramatic intrigue.
The farce sees the social-climbing Jordain making eyes at Marquise Celimene, and Celimene at the aristocrat Dorante. The romance has the penniless Moliere (posing as Tartuffe, a priest) besotted by Mme. Jordain (lovely Laura Morante). The drama trades in sex, lies and cuckoldry.
The three narrative strands sometimes produce the effect of the actors being in three different movies.
Yet Luchini plays the buffoon with startling dignity, Morante an adulteress with unexpected loyalty and Duris a jester with deep feelings.
Like the playwright's comedies, at its best Moliere shows the depths beneath the archetypes.
Moliere *** (out of four stars)
Directed by Laurent Tirard, written by Tirard and Gregoire Vigneron. With Romain Duris, Fabrice Luchini, Laura Morante and Edouard Baer. In French with subtitles. Distributed by Sony Pictures Classics.
Parents' guide: PG-13 (discreet sex)
Running time: 2 hours
Playing at: The Ritz Five and Showcase at the Ritz Center/NJ
Contact Carrie Rickey at 215-854-5402 or email@example.com. Read her blog, "Flickgrrl," at http://go.philly.com/flickgrrl.