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Family Plot 

An old school chum insinuates himself into a man's family life in the Hitchcockian black comedy "With a Friend Like Harry ... "

In the first scene of With a Friend Like Harry ... , a fairly normal 34-year-old father of three, Michel, has an awkward meeting in a rest stop bathroom with a wet-handed stranger. The stranger lets his hands dangle in front of him, staring at Michel until he looks up from the basin. Initially, it seems as though the stranger could just be waiting to get at the paper towels, but his odd grin suggests otherwise. Although Michel doesn't recognize him, it turns out that they are old schoolmates, and Michel was responsible for chipping the stranger's tooth once while playing racquetball. The stranger's name is Harry.

This scene in director-co-writer Dominik Moll's black comedy thriller is played meticulously by Sergei Lopez, as Harry, and Laurent Lucas, as Michel, in front of a wall-size mirror. Moll frames most of the scene so that we see doubles of both Harry and Michel in the mirror. Harry's odd pause next to Michel is almost ingratiating, but unsettling because of his mannerisms and eerie smile, while the double image questions any belief in appearances.

So begins the men's mutable friendship, which becomes increasingly bizarre. Harry's strange leer in the bathroom is the least of his idiosyncrasies; others will include lavish gift giving and late-night egg-drinking. He quickly insinuates himself and his girlfriend, Plum, into the lives of Michel, his wife, Claire, and their children, taking a maniacal interest in Michel's well-being. His twisted interpretation of how to bring about that well-being makes Harry behave in the ways that give the film its narrative thrust.

As the second half of the film plays out, however, Michel becomes the focus of a nuanced commentary on motivation. As Harry tries to alienate (to put it mildly) Michel from his family, it becomes clear that Harry's motivations are of little interest to the filmmaker. Some viewers will be upset that his motives are never explained, but this seems very deliberate on the filmmaker's part. Moll focuses instead on Michel and his degree of complacency with Harry--who helps him financially and encourages him artistically--giving the film its layered texture.

Some critics have dubbed Harry a Hitchcockian film. While there are some stylistic similarities with Hitchcock, it's closer in content and tone to the work of German director Rainer Werner Fassbinder, particularly Fassbinder's classic murder story, Why Does Herr R. Run Amok? Michel's life is no paradigm of middle-class happiness. His vacation is a wreck. He seems to love Claire, but they bicker in a realistic, needling way. His daughters--like real children--are charming one minute, obnoxious the next. While Harry's one hope for happiness seems to lie in taking up writing again, his wife points out the laughability of his first and only writings (one poem titled "The Dagger in the Skin of Night," the other an opening for a science fiction novel with the working title of The Flying Monkeys). Like Fassbinder, Moll is more concerned with asking what exactly Michel should fight for--or if he should fight at all--than how he will stop an evil force that has invaded his life.

Ambiguity-as-commentary is Moll's game in With a Friend Like Harry ... , which is a playful if somber film about friendship, class and comedy itself. The tension in his film derives not so much from the film's plot as it does from the mounting layers of questions about character and motivation. To the very last scene, the narrative remains almost simplistically clear, but Moll's moral position vis-à-vis his characters--and what response he expects to elicit from his audience--stays intriguingly murky. EndBlock

  • The black comedy thriller, With a Friend Like Harry ... , is flavored with Fassbinder and Hitchcock.

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