After punching a shopping mall security guard unconscious, feisty working class single mum Violette Mandini (Virginie Efira) faces hefty fines and the likelihood the state will take her kids away. Out of the blue she is approached by wealthy recluse Paul-André Delalande (Benoît Poelvoorde) with a most unusual proposal. He offers to settle all of Violette's debts and use his influence to ensure her children will remain at home. In return Paul-André wants to move in with them for a period of one month. He makes it clear there is nothing untoward going on. He is not interested in any hanky-panky and wants Violette to do as she pleases. It is just having never had a family of his own, Paul-André is curious to learn what it is like to be a husband and father. So Violette takes the rich eccentric into her modest home introducing him as her 'boyfriend' to brainy, volatile teenage daughter Lucie (Pauline Serieys) and hyperactive, football-mad diabetic Auguste (Calixte Broisin-Doutaz). Inevitably Paul-André soon learns family life is no bed of roses.
Benoît Poelvoorde has certainly come a long way since his breakout turn as star and co-director of controversial serial killer satire Man Bites Dog (1992). Now firmly established as one of France's top comedy stars, Poelvoorde here follows his last crowd-pleasing collaboration with comic auteur Jean-Pierre Améris, Romantics Anonymous (2010), with Une famille à louer, an easygoing if bland paean to family life. Inspired by Améris' own readjustment from bachelorhood to life with partner and co-screenwriter Murielle Magellan (who also had a child from a previous relationship), the film is not that conceptually different from one of those Eighties comedies where a rich person goes to live with an ordinary slob and discovers, hey!, poor folks have something money can't buy. Think: Overboard (1987).
Predictably Paul-André gets in over his head and soon struggles to apply his innate fastidious tendencies to bring calm and order to Violette's chaotic household. Equally as predictably he also discovers money cannot satisfy emotional needs in the same way as the simple joys of family togetherness. Not to mention that the perpetually provocatively-attired Violette is frankly hot. Their relationship thaws in a way that is charming and sweet, subtly exposing the cracks in their psychological makeup. Paul-André is emotionally inert on account of a strained relationship with his distant, consistently disapproving mother (Edith Scob, of Eyes Without a Face (1959) fame!), while Violette's relatives make her feel insecure about her dyslexia so they can continue to exploit her. In the course of these two damaged, insecure individuals healing each other, Améris does manages to say something interesting about the complexity of family life in the twentieth century as a source of both stability and strife. He also makes a case for frequent arguments being far from a sign of a broken family but rather evidence they do care and a cathartic exercise that allows them to grow.
Even so, while Family for Rent mines a far subtler vein of wit without recourse to crudity than one finds in a Hollywood feel-good comedy, it is just as frothy and inconsequential. Améris exhausts the comic potential of his premise pretty early on. Thereafter what laughs there are rarely rise above the mildest chuckles. It is held together by a marvelous turn by Poelvoorde. His performance as the jittery, repressed control freak Paul-André is a precision comic instrument perfectly complemented by the brassier but humane turn from the engaging Virginie Efira. Furthermore Améris' meticulous direction proves comedies do not have look so bland.