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Only Human 

A new French film has its heart in the right place, but its characters are a problem.

There's plenty of campaign rhetoric about working families, but whoever talks about one of the biggest problems of the working man today -- massive corporate downsizing? In the era of record profits and welfare "reform," all that matters is having any kind of job, whether or not it's the one you were trained for, and the hell with benefits, because the company has to remain "competitive." In recent years, Hollywood has remained silent on the true plight of the working class. Save for a few peeps from Michael Moore every now and then, most movies feature comfortably upper-middle-class folk. When a pauper does come along, it's Forrest Gump, who's simply happy to make do with less. And when workers in movies are depicted as being unhappy, it's usually in the context of a good office job (think American Beauty, Fight Club, Office Space).

Which is why it's refreshing when a more down-to-earth portrayal shows up -- even one that isn't American. Laurent Cantet's Human Resources, from France, is the sort of thing we need more of. It's also the sort of thing we need a better version of, but more on that in a moment. The story of a young man named Franck (Jalil Lespert), who returns to his hometown to take a job at the human resources department in the factory that also employs his father (Jean-Claude Vallod), Human Resources shows that corporate downsizing is not a problem confined to these shores. Amusingly derided as a "liberal" by his father for daring to fraternize with the workers during lunch period, Franck has a pro-business, pro-efficiency attitude that ensures he'll go far. Issue No. 1: implementation of the 35-hour work week.

The union isn't particularly happy about that (it's never particularly clear, for us Americans for whom 40 hours is the norm, if 35 hours is considered unacceptably high or low; there seem to be complaints on both sides) and raises a ruckus. But Franck knows better; he polls the workers and finds that the union doesn't necessarily represent their views. Naturally, the bosses use the poll results to get rid of the union and then prepare to instigate mass layoffs. Franck discovers the hit-list -- and the fact that his father is on it, despite having only a few years left until retirement. Thus does our protagonist lose his innocence and battle begins.

It's a story that has the makings of a Capra movie, but unfortunately it isn't handled here in a particularly interesting fashion. At first, it seems as though director Cantet is going for a surreal, generic style, as in Neil LaBute's In the Company of Men or Orson Welles's The Trial (we never learn exactly what it is the factory does, beyond the fact that it makes metal items that vaguely resemble auto parts). But as the movie goes on, it seems that the generic sets are more a result of the film's low budget than a deliberate conceptual touch. However, it's not exactly an intimate film, either. Franck's parents aren't even referred to by name, and it hardly seems a revelation that father and son are distant -- what son doesn't feel that daddy just can't understand?

The result is a film that straddles the nebulous middle ground between distant and intimate -- if it committed further in either direction, it would hold our interest longer. Part of the problem may be the use of nonactors in most of the roles. They look like real people, and they are entirely believable, but none has any kind of star charisma, which may be what's needed to make an issue-based film compelling (imagine Roger and Me without Michael Moore's wry narration or Mr. Smith Goes to Washington with a nonactor in James Stewart's place). Cantet deserves credit for calling attention to the plight of the modern worker, but he loses sight of telling a good story while trying to merely push the issue.

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