Sometimes it pains me to say when a film is an unwatchable mess. Films like French Immersion, the directorial debut of Quebec-based producer Kevin Tierney (Bon Cop, Bad Cop, The Trotsky, Good Neighbours), has an incredible amount of talent in front of the camera and behind it. It is supposed to be a comedy about the differences between English and French speaking Canada, but instead it’s a soul-sucking train wreck full of punchlines so misguided they would make Jeff Foxworthy and Larry the Cable Guy think twice. Sickeningly unfunny and dreadfully “Canadian,” Tierney’s film strikes out on almost every conceivable level.
There’s enough plot and quirky characters in French Immersion to sustain a year’s worth of television pilots, but Tierney tries to pack every half baked idea he has into a single film. The film deals with five English speakers forced to enter into an intense French immersion academy in the rural Quebec town of Saint-Isidor-du-Couer-de-Jesus (because everyone is CRAZY religious there) in order to advance their respective careers. It was almost as if Tierney found out he was dying in less than a year and that he would only ever get one chance to make a lame comedy.
I need to take a really deep breath before explaining the specifics of the film. It’s going to be exhausting. I wanted to make a Harry Nilsson-style song out of the synopsis like the famous songsmith did for the credits to Otto Preminger’s 1968 film Skidoo, but then I realized that Tierney’s film wasn’t worth the effort.
First there is political hopeful Bobby Sexton (Gavin Crawford), a leading candidate to become the party leader of the Canadian Party of Canada despite being gay and from Newfoundland, two things that Tierney seems to find infinitely hilarious as it combines two really funny ways for actors to inflect their lines. Sexton is there incognito because he is being called out on his inability to speak to the Quebecois by his party rival Michael Pontifikator (Colm Feore, who honest to God looks like he was Skyped in). Sexton is forced into an uneasy alliance with a local politician (Robert Charlebois) who is eager to get back into politics to forward his nationalist agenda.
Second there is Aretha (Olunike Adeliyi), a flight attendant who is seemingly only there to be black and sassy. She is paired with Cathy O’Reilly (Martha Burns), who is also there incognito to provide protection services to Sexton, who could end up being the next Prime Minister of the country. Neither of them is given anything exciting to do except to go to a strip club by accident because after ten days of classes they still can’t figure out that a sign that says dancing on it and has a naked lady on it means the place is a fucking strip club. Even worse, Cathy seems to only be there to punctuate how ignorant Aretha is.
Then we have Jonathan Hornstein (Kevin Tierney), a Jewish man from New York who wants to open a French restaurant (begging the question why doesn’t he just go to France, but whatever), who is living with a family that has both an intensely bigoted grandmother who wants to baptize him and a goth teenage daughter who desperately wants to fuck him. You have to hand it to the elder Tierney for giving his son arguable the most reprehensible storyline in the film
Jonathan is paired up with Kumar (Ali Hassan), the owner of the town’s one ethnic restaurant who moved to the town because he was told “all the Indians live up North.” Har-dee-har-har. In addition to some bonding with Jonathan that goes absolutely nowhere, Kumar also has a wife from an arranged marriage that refuses to leave her room. Neither Kumar nor his wife has anything to do with the actual plot of these characters even being in a French immersion program.
Finally there is the one subplot in the film that actually comes close to approximating any real emotion. Colin (Corner Gas and Dan for Mayor’s Fred Ewanuick) is a postal worker from Red Deer, Alberta who has to learn French for a promotion despite the fact that no one in his area even speaks it. He is saddled with a family that included two adopted Chinese con artists for kids, and he develops a sweet crush on the school’s language instructor (Karine Vanasse).
Together, Ewanuick and Vanasse are a joy to watch. A simple sequence between the two of them where they simply have a conversation is a welcome island of sanity in an ocean of shit. Had the movie focused only on them, it would be a minor success.
But no, we still have EVEN MORE FUCKING PLOT to deal with. I have mentioned all the Anglo plots, but what about the town itself? The previously mentioned Charlebrois has his own plot, as does the rest of his family. The entire town is in danger of losing its primary source of income if this batch of students fails. Why? Who knows and who cares? They just will, okay? But what will become of the really creepy guy who acts as the school’s primary disciplinarian (Yves Jacques) who looks Amish and is the only person in town who doesn’t have the last name Tremblay? Again, I really couldn’t give a shit.
If my summary of the film’s plot feels scattershot and sloppy, then good. I am actively trying to approximate the feeling of watching this film. It bounces from story to story with total disregard for character and coherency, and its strung together with some of the most off putting jokes committed to celluloid this year. Off putting can be okay if you can back it up with substance, but there is simply no wit in Kevin Tierney’s script and he has absolutely no sense of pacing whatsoever.
It attempts to be episodic in the same manner as a sitcom, but it manages to not include the jokes. For no reason other than to add some sort of unneeded tension there are lengthy scenes of everyone playing dodgeball, racing go karts, and playing hockey. It is supposed to highlight the competitive nature between the Anglos and the Quebecois, but it isn’t funny or exciting. It’s basically a bunch of people fucking around and pissing away a Telefilm grant to some of the worst placed sound effects ever committed to film and television. They are mean spirited and devoid of anything even remotely approaching comedy.
Other “jokes” worthy of note: Sexton sleeps in the all pink bedroom of his host families departed daughter who is away at CEGEP, but he is so stupid that he thinks she is dead and that CEGEP is her name. Everyone smokes massive amounts of weed because weed is inherently funny when you don’t give the characters anything funny to do after they smoke it. The racist grandmother Jonathan is staying with sneaks into his room one night to circumcise him and immediately after the botched attempt he fucks the woman’s granddaughter. Sexton is forced to dress in drag and sing “I’ve Got You Babe” in French. The school is taken over by a metrosexual fuck up who uses the school’s intercom to make Wayne’s World references. The fact that everyone in the town has the surname Tremblay is trotted out literally every two minutes without ever being funnier or even remotely different. Oh, and the film ends with a Bollywood number that goes nowhere and does nothing except seemingly forgetting to hide the cameramen that were actually shooting the number. It’s that incompetent.
Tierney also has no clue what to do with the actors who seem to have been simply told to “just do that thing you’re really good at.” Charlebrois is leery and greasy. Crawford delivers every annoying line that comes out of his mouth like he never left the set of This Hour Has 22 Minutes. Feore just has to raise his eyebrows disapprovingly. Even the film’s strongest links, Ewanuick and Vanasse, seem to have simply been told “you guys are the only nice people in the film, so just sit there and be nice.”
Towards the very end of the film a character exclaims “ Geez, you people are humourless.” It feels like Tierney taped a knife to his elbow and has started jabbing you in the sides with it by this point. Repetitive, ugly, mean, and worst of all, humourless, the line comes across as the ultimate pot calling the kettle black. Save for Ewanuick and Vanasse (who deserve a do over and much better than this), no one escapes this debacle with any sort of dignity. This is a film that attempts to bridge the gap between Quebec and the rest of Canada, but is one that shouldn’t be viewed by anyone anywhere in the world.