I rented With a Friend Like Harry… (the other translation, Harry, He’s Here to Help is actually a better title) because I thought Sergi Lopez was a bad-ass in Pan’s Labyrinth, and I wanted to see what he could do as the bad guy in a flat-out horror/suspense thriller. Also, I just wanted to see what a contemporary (2000, close enough) French suspense thriller would be like.
Overall, the movie feels like something got lost in translation. Not from French to English, but from the pitch meeting to the production. Somewhere along the line, the idea “What if we remade What About Bob? as a suspense thriller?” turned into “What if we remade What About Bob? and labeled it as a suspense thriller?”
There are a lot of spine-tingling, flesh-crawling scenes in the movie, but they’re more like the kind you get from watching “The Office” or “Da Ali G Show:” people caught in really uncomfortable and awkward social situations. Now, my reaction to awkward social situations, even scripted ones, is indistinguishable from my reaction to a horror movie — shifting uncomfortably in my seat, covering my eyes with my hands, violent shuddering — but I thought that was just because I’m preternaturally sensitive. I kept waiting for the big pay-off, but it never came.
Of course, for all I know, that was the intent. The French are supposed to be so much more cultured than we are; maybe there really is nothing more horrifying to them than an acquaintance who won’t go away and buys you gas-guzzling cars and eats all your eggs and talks about orgasms at the dinner table. (Then again, I always thought that being given free rein to talk openly and effusively about your orgasms in mixed company was part of the je ne sais quoi of being French).
When I finished the movie, I dutifully went back to Netflix and rated it two stars. The internets needed to know that no, I didn’t like it. But then I realized that this movie is worse than a boring Frenchy non-suspense thriller non-black comedy. It’s one of those movies that makes you think.
Not too much, understand. Just enough to realize that it’s actually a good movie, once you look past the “suspense” label and just take it on its own merits. All the performances are perfect, and there are plenty of directorial touches that let you know it was artfully made — lots of references to Stanley Kubrick and Alfred Hitchcock, great sound design throughout, and a couple of stand-out scenes. (The opening in the car, and Michel’s dream at his parents’ house).
Thematically, it’s got enough just enough meat to it to be memorable. The idea of an average guy having to deal with an obsessive stranger isn’t a cliche, but it’s not exactly new, either. This movie adds some depth to that by showing how the obsession starts to go both ways.
And the ending that seemed unsatisfying to me when I watched the movie, has left kind of an aftertaste — it’s not a twist ending in the traditional sense, but it does change and become more profound the longer you think about it. What seems at first to be a happy ending, or at least an anticlimactic sputtering to a conclusion, becomes darker and darker as you think back on the events that led to it. What exactly was happening to the protagonist Michel for the last 15 minutes of the movie? At the time, his expression is impenetrable, and he just seems to be moving through everything in a daze. What kind of shift happened in his mind as he reached the ending? It seems like Harry helped a lot, in exactly the way he’d intended — so what does that mean to the man who received his help?
But still, it all feels like a simple thought exercise or character study, instead of being genuinely unsettling or thought-provoking. Despite its high points, there’s something missing from the movie that keeps it from reaching above average. It might be as simple as cutting half the movie out — the glacial pacing would be okay for building up suspense in a real thriller, but this just feels like stuttering moments of build-up with no release. Not a bad movie, but definitely tough to recommend.
But there is a flying monkey in it, so there you go.