In the days leading up to viewing Mon Oncle, I began to call my appreciation of comedies into question. Having been disappointed by two of the summer’s most heralded farces, Tropic Thunder and Pineapple Express, I wondered whether I lost my sense of humor — or if these flicks just happened to be not all that funny. But within five minutes of popping in Mon Oncle, the answer was quite clear to me. While something like Tropic Thunder tries to force out its laughs, Mon Oncle allows them to unfold with a much more natural finesse. The result is a film that moves at a leisurely pace but comes across with a much more smooth and consistent sense of humor.
Mon Oncle continues the misadventures of Monsieur Hulot (writer/director Jacques Tati), a man who, as was evident in this picture’s predecessor (M. Hulot’s Holiday), doesn’t seem to fit in with the world around him. Hulot is a creature of simple means, which puts him frequently at odds with an increasingly modernized society. That last part is best represented by Hulot’s own sister (Adrienne Servantie) and brother-in-law (Jean-Pierre Zola), a couple whose home is packed to the gills with up-to-date “conveniences.” While they view him as little more than an eccentric gadabout, Hulot has a much better relationship with his nephew Gerard (Alain Becourt), a young lad who’d rather play in the dirt with his buddies than be stuck in his sanitized prison of a home. Over the course of a few days, Hulot’s relatives try everything to induct him into their modern lifestyle (from inviting him to a garden party to getting him a job in a plastics factory), though all attempts to do so meet with hilariously disastrous results.
If M. Hulot’s Holiday was an appetizer, consider Mon Oncle to be the main course. Tati incorporates the same sense of humor and observations on human behavior that he displayed in Holiday, only here, he ups the ante so it doesn’t feel like you’re watching the same movie all over again. Holiday’s farcical jabs were gentle and mostly took a back seat to Hulot’s hijinks, but in the case of Mon Oncle, such elements are very much integral to the story. This is satire of the highest order, being a film of much charm and amusement that unleashes its razor-sharp wit at all the right moments. Tati expands on what he introduced in Holiday by setting his sights firmly on playing up all of modern life’s little contradictions, how a lot of advances intended to make life easier have only made things a lot more complicated. By contrasting Hulot’s colorful neighborhood against the isolated, squeaky-clean community of his extended clan, it’s clear Tati wants viewers to see that the less complex we make life for ourselves, the better.
What better way for Tati to convey this message than through his own self? As countless other critics have mentioned before, Tati’s Monsieur Hulot is a classic comic creation ranking right up there with Charlie Chaplin’s Tramp and the Marx Brothers. Hulot is a character who generates laughs not just by the subtlety with which he really sticks it to the establishment but also with his awe-inspiring physicality. Tati combines both of these philosophies into one for Mon Oncle, and what he ends up with emerges as nothing short of comedic bliss. It’s a pure and simple pleasure watching Tati do what he does best, with Monsieur Hulot breezing through life almost completely oblivious to the chaos he leaves in his wake. Viewers will surely let loose more than a few hearty chuckles as Hulot inadvertently breaks the water main to his sister’s tacky fountain, riles up a dog with the use of a fish, and finds a way to transform garden hose into makeshift sausages. Sometimes, Hulot doesn’t have to lift a finger, leaving his sister and brother-in-law to be victims of their own misguided modernization.
As a comedy, Mon Oncle isn’t quite perfect. Some set pieces end up working better than others (the garden party scene has as many great laughs as it does brief moments of inactivity). But don’t let something as petty as a couple of minor flaws dissuade you from giving Mon Oncle a fair shot. It’s a lovely little film with loads of laughter to spare, one of the most pleasant and enriching moviegoing experiences you’re likely to come across.