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‘What’s In a Name?’ Review: The Year’s Most Semantic Comedy

By  · Published on December 16th, 2013

Pierre (Charles Berling), a university prof who wears corduroy “like his second skin,” and his wife Elizabeth (Valérie Benguigui), an eternally optimistic middle-school teacher, are hosting a small dinner party for three guests. Claude (Guillaume de Tonquedec), a single and successful trombonist, has been best friends with Elizabeth since their childhood. Her carefree brother, Vincent (Patrick Bruel), is also joining along with his pregnant wife, Anna (Judith El Zein).

All hope for a quiet and casual gathering is thrown violently out the window when the night becomes a highly combustible, Mediterranean food-fueled fracas among friends and family. The fireworks start innocently enough when, with Anna running late, Vincent entertains guesses from the others as to what they’ve decided to name their unborn son. They all come up short leading him to reveal a name that quickly moves the room from incredulous to enraged. The ensuing argument triggers a spate of insults, insinuations, and revelations that threaten to ruin not just the evening but their relationships as well.

What’s In a Name? is a wickedly sharp and biting look at the value we place on names, both the proper ones we’re given and the identifiers we use in daily life, and how they’re used to sum up a person’s life and contribution in just a word or two. Friend. Brother. Wife. Lover. Asshole…?

“Starsky and Hutch didn’t exterminate six million!”

The film is an ensemble piece, but Vincent and his antics are at the center of much of it. He sets the stage early on after showing the others a picture of the ultrasound and making a terrifically dark joke about his son. He’s indifferent to their outrage much as he’s just a bit out of tune when it comes to their lives and interests. They all love each other to be sure, but he holds himself slightly apart and above the others in his disaffected demeanor. Many of the truths that come to light are a direct reflection of how each of them sees themselves and each other. Expectations of what makes a best friend, what constitutes a proper lover, and even what’s acceptable as a first name are all challenged as the group tangles with the weight of long-lasting meanings.

Co-directors Alexandre de La Patellière and Matthieu Delaporte have adapted Delaporte’s own hit play, but the move to film has created an issue that wasn’t present in the original source material. Worse, it’s the film’s only real issue. While the majority of the film takes place in Pierre and Elizabeth’s apartment, basically the play’s one location, the film opens and closes with exterior action that lessens the film’s effect in distinct ways.

The movie opens with narration and a certain visual style, both highly reminiscent of Jean-Pierre Jeunet’s Amelie. We dart through side characters, multiple references and tangents to historical figures, and asides to obscurities like horsehair mats before settling in to the apartment and the characters who matter. It feels like a direct lift from that other film, and while the streets named after crazy dead men tie in to the title’s theme it’s not enough to justify the way it’s presented. The ending also moves outside, but unlike the intro, it’s the tone that disappoints in its failure to mesh with all that came before.

Neither of these are deal-breakers though as the scenes set in the apartment, roughly 95% of the whole, are a wonderfully-acted balance between warm moments and scathing verbal sparring. Much of it is fantastically funny too as the battle of wits commences between them. The script uses very little fuel at times yet still manages some impressive conflagrations, and the five leads all deliver the fiery goods. It’s easy to imagine these performances on the stage as they’re complete with volume and gesticulations visible from the back of the theater, and while some may find them too big they work beautifully in the confines of the evening and the apartment.

What’s In a Name? adds a darkly comedic bent to a discussion that most of us aren’t having. Can a life be summed up by a name because of all that’s come before? Can a relationship be evaluated or dismissed based solely on narrowly defined role expectations? Can you really name your child that and expect the world to approve?

The Upside: Smart and funny; fantastic chemistry and comedic timing between the cast

The Downside: Opening narration is more derivative than necessary; wrap-up is a bit sanguine

On the Side: The original play’s run in 2010 featured four of the same five leads.

What’s In a Name? is currently playing in limited theatrical release.

Rob Hunter has been writing for Film School Rejects since before you were born, which is weird seeing as he's so damn young. He's our Chief Film Critic and Associate Editor and lists 'Broadcast News' as his favorite film of all time. Feel free to say hi if you see him on Twitter @FakeRobHunter.