"Le Grand Role" has laughter, pathos, in-jokes, heartburn, self-caricature -- in other words, it's a really, really Jewish film, even though the characters insist on speaking French.
The film's concept is cute, although it could have gone astray in less-skilled hands.
Maurice (Stephane Freiss) is one of four good buddies in Paris, all Jewish, all in their late 30s, and all actors who scrape by on commercials, dubbings and bit parts.
The big chance comes for Maurice when legendary American director Rudolph Grishenberg (Peter Coyote doing a takeoff on Steven Spielberg) comes to town with his latest project: an all-Yiddish movie version of "The Merchant of Venice."
After his buddies ambush the director in shul, Maurice gets a tryout for the role of Shylock. He does a curiously moving rendition of the "Hath not a Jew eyes?" monologue in Yiddish and gets the nod from Grishenberg.
The actor rushes home to break the life-changing news to his beautiful wife Perla (Berenice Bojo). The two are crazy about each other, to the point where Maurice surreptitiously takes photos of his wife at work in a clothing store.
Perla stuns her husband with some news of her own. She has been diagnosed with terminal cancer and has only a few weeks to live.
A couple of days later, Grishenberg finds a name star to play Shylock and dumps Maurice. But how can the actor tell Perla, when only the belief that her husband has finally made it brings her some last bit of happiness.
So the four buddies concoct a scheme pretending that Maurice still has the part and is doing just great. Every morning, a limousine picks up Maurice to take him to the "studio," he poses for fake photo shoots and interviews, and when Perla phones Maurice on the "set," the buddies provide the necessary background sounds.
In a final desperate move, the friends kidnap Grishenberg and convince him to visit Perla's bedside and tell her what a great actor her husband is.
To get the director to that point takes some doing, and when his kidnappers ask him to lie about Maurice for the greater good, Grishenberg delivers the movie's top laugh line, "I can't lie. I am an American and Americans don't lie."
The bittersweet ending is honest, if not entirely satisfactory, but director Steve Suissa, working off Daniel Goldenberg's novel, maintains an unforced balance to create an appealing slice of life, French Jewish style.
"Le Grand Role" opens this Friday (9/30) at Laemmle's Music Hall in Beverly Hills.