The spirit of Cyrano de Bergerac hovers over “Mr. Stein Goes Online,” a comedy by French director Stephane Robelin, though unlike in Rostand’s famous play, the hero’s problem in this case is not his nose but his age. Pierre Stein (Pierre Richard) is an elderly widower who has not stepped outside his cozy Paris apartment since his wife died two years ago. His behavior annoys Sylvie (Stephane Bissot), his chilly daughter, who has trouble with her own daughter, Juliette (Stephanie Crayencour), over the latter’s boyfriend, Alex (Yaniss Lespert), a penniless, failed writer who has moved into Sylvie’s apartment to live there with Juliette.
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Sylvie decides to kill two birds with one stone. She hires Alex to teach her father about the internet, without telling Pierre that he is Juliette’s boyfriend. Pierre, though reclusive, is not the kind of crotchety old man we usually encounter in movies, and he agrees to have Alex (who is far more crotchety, and reluctant to take the job) visit him and teach him how to surf the web.
Pierre adapts to the online world with impressive speed, and he is especially entranced by dating sites; on one he meets a beautiful young Belgian woman, Flora (Fanny Valette), who vaguely resembles his late wife. Flora is won over by Pierre’s effusive, poetic language, and after a time she invites him to visit her in Brussels. There’s a problem, however: Pierre did not tell Flora his age, and he used an image of the young, attractive Alex as his profile picture.
Eager to meet Flora, or at least to see her, Pierre asks Alex to accompany him to Brussels and go on the date with Flora, after coaching him in detail on what to say and how to act. Alex, who finds himself moved by the older man’s sudden romantic awakening (and perhaps sensing an idea for a novel in the situation), agrees, and that’s when things get really complicated.
The story thus far could have been the basis for a predictable situation comedy, and “Mr. Stein Goes Online” offers its fair share of comic situations. But Robelin turns the premise of the plot into a relaxed, low-key comedy. Clearly, he was trying to tinge the humor of his film with some of the melancholy that comes with age. The main virtue of the movie is that instead of portraying Pierre and Alex’s emerging friendship with saccharine sweetness, it shows them both to be in need of redemption, each in his own way. The result is sympathetic, even if the movie is at times a little too low-key, which keeps it from becoming something beyond a comedy whose melancholy is buried too deep beneath the surface.
Leading comic actor
Yaniss Lespert is excellent as Alex, though his role seems to consist of a single grumpy tone, and it was nice to reencounter French actress Macha Meril, who appeared in Roger Vadim’s 1962 “Love on a Pillow,” in Jean-Luc Godard’s 1964 “The Married Woman” and in Luis Bunuel’s 1967 “Belle de Jour.” The movie, however, belongs to Richard, 83, who in the 1970s and ‘80s was one of France’s leading comic actors, with his unruly hair and unruly behavior. (He sometimes reminded me of the late American actor Gene Wilder, in his ability to add a measure of confusion and vulnerability to the wildness of his comic roles.)
Richard’s biggest international hit was Yves Robert’s 1972 comedy “The Tall Blond Man with One Black Shoe,” which led to a sequel, also directed by Robert, in 1974. (There was also an unfortunate American remake in 1985, directed by Stan Dragoti and starring Tom Hanks, then in perpetual career crisis.)
Richard also starred in some successful action comedies together with Gerard Depardieu, but the most significant figure in his career was the French playwright, screenwriter and director Francis Veber (“The Dinner Game,” “The Closet”), who knew best how to exploit Richard’s comic persona and who wrote the actor’s most successful films.
Physical comedy was always one of Richard’s foremost talents, but in “Mr. Stein Goes Online” we see no sign of it. His unruly hair, gray now, frames his handsome face with a somewhat smug elegance, and his performance, while not dazzling, is restrained and sympathetic. We don’t really get to know much about Pierre beyond his obsessive, controlling side. Alex is a more accessible character, but it is Richard’s presence, with its undertone of nostalgia, that fills the movie. There is something touching about the look in his eyes, and it makes up for the relative shallowness of his character.
“Mr. Stein Goes Online” is a minor work, a comedy that makes you smile rather than laugh; now and then it settles into a certain monotony because it refuses to explore the darker, obsessive and even exploitative side of the story it tells. Robelin prefers not to disturb us too much, aiming instead for a comic and emotional moderation. The result is pleasant to watch, even if it leaves behind no powerful trace on the memory.