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Hand the keys to your heart to ‘The Valet’

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I’m on record as being a big proponent of romantic comedies. When they’re done well, they are cinematic delights, telling funny and heartfelt stories of love and our desire to find it. And when they find ways to approach old tropes from new angles, so much the better.

Hulu’s “The Valet” – directed by Richard Wong from a screenplay by Bob Fisher and Rob Greenberg, adapted from Francis Weber’s 2006 French film of the same name – is a charming spin on the traditional rom-com, a movie that manages to somehow feel fresh even as it more or less follows the standard formula.

Still, variations on a theme can be a lot of fun if they’re handled properly, and for the most part, “The Valet” does just that, thanks to a game cast and some solid direction. The representation doesn’t hurt, either – the film’s ensemble is packed with Spanish speakers and we move pretty seamlessly between that language and English throughout. Again, we’re not reinventing the wheel here, but we are putting some pretty nice tires on these familiar rims.

Antonio Flores (Eugenio Derbez) is a valet, parking cars for the rich and powerful of Los Angeles. He lives with his mother Cecilia (Carmen Salinas); he is separated from his wife Isabel (Marisol Nichols) and shares custody of his teenage son Marco (Joshua Vasquez). His is a quiet and unassuming life; he’s a nice guy, but not a particularly ambitious one.

Olivia Allan (Samara Weaving) is one of the biggest movie stars on the planet, with her new film – a biopic of Amelia Earhart – set to premiere in a matter of days. She’s also engaged in a secretive affair with Vincent Royce (Max Greenfield), a massively wealthy real estate developer who also happens to be married to Kathryn (Betsy Brandt).

One night, following a tryst, an argument between Olivia and Vincent spills out into the street, where paparazzi await. In the middle of it all, a distracted Antonio rides his bike into the rear of a car. Olivia tries to help him even as Vincent continues to try and coax her back inside. However, the photographers are there, cameras at the ready, and they get a picture of Olivia and Vincent together; the scandal machine immediately starts to churn.

In an effort to stave off the truth of his infidelity, Vincent comes up with a plan – Olivia will pretend to be dating Antonio, which will explain the photo. Antonio will be paid for his trouble; after a few weeks, after the heat dies down, everyone can go back to their lives.

If your guess as to what happens next is that hijinks ensue, well … you’re right!

From there, we watch as the self-centered Olivia and the soft-spoken Antonio slowly get to know one another. He learns about her relationship with Vincent and her conflicted feelings about it; she learns about Isabel and Antonio’s deep affection for his mom and the rest of his family. Meanwhile, Kathryn has hired a private investigator to track Antonio and Olivia – she doesn’t believe her husband – while Vincent has hired a private investigator to keep an eye on Kathryn’s private investigator.

Both Olivia and Antonio are somewhat lost, but they find in one another a sympathetic ear and shoulder. Each must decide what it is they truly want and who it is they truly want to be – and who they want to be alongside. All this while surrounded by personal and professional chaos.

“The Valet” works because the filmmakers find ways to follow the usual path in an unusual way. We’ve seen plenty of pretend-relationship-turns-real stories, but this one doesn’t adhere to the standard versions of those stories. A lot of the landmarks are there, but ultimately, the destination proves to be a little different. Granted, I can’t delve too deeply into what makes this one different – too many risks of spoilers – but rest assured that it is in fact different.

Now, the whole two-way fish out of water breakdown – he’s uncomfortable in her world, she’s uncomfortable in his – works well, with the filmmakers making plenty of hay from both sides of the scenario. It helps that Antonio is a fundamentally good dude, someone for whom we can’t help but root. That goodness in turn reflects off Olivia, even as she helps Antonio find the strength to reach for what he wants. It’s a lovely push-pull; you don’t always get this kind of equality of perspective from the rom-com realm.

Derbez is an undeniably engaging performer, one who radiates charisma even when he’s actively seeking to come off as unassuming. He is charming and sweet, with a wide-eyed quality that makes him all the more likable. Meanwhile, Weaving navigates a tricky path – she’s got to find ways to come off as selfish and unlikable while also leaving herself room to earn our affection. It’s an incredibly tough balance to strike, but she does it; she’s a real talent. And the two of them together have a wonderful, easy chemistry.

The supporting cast is solid as well. Greenfield is in his wheelhouse as the wealthy narcissist. Brandt is great as his suspicious wife. Salinas is great (especially in the scenes with her boyfriend – I won’t spoil it, but they’re a delight). Amaury Nolasco, Armando Hernandez and Carlos Santos are outstanding in small roles as Antonio’s valet buddies; ditto John Pirruccelo and Ravi Patel as the dueling PIs. But in truth, everyone is good.

There’s something to be said for a movie that leaves you feeling good at the end. “The Valet” is that movie, courtesy of the sweet chemistry of its central pairing, a solid ensemble and a well-balanced distribution of the “rom” and the “com.” I’ll leave it at this – you won’t regret handing over your keys.

[4 out of 5]

Last modified on Wednesday, 25 May 2022 09:59

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