Patrice Leconte’s latest film brings a Hollywood concept to the art house.

Strange Friends: Another Odd Couple: Francois (Daniel Auteuil) and Bruno (Dany Boon) in My Best Friend.

My Best Friend is an odd little movie. The screenplay (by Patrice Leconte and Jérôme Tonnerre) is a contrived situation comedy of the kind that fills prime-time television and suburban multiplexes. A ruthless, workaholic businessman is teased by his business partner for not having any friends. No, no, the antique dealer insists, he has many friends. The partner bets him a $200,000 Greek vase that the workaholic can’t produce a best friend in 10 days. The clock starts ticking, and the friendless but competitive businessman begins frantically, cluelessly trying to come up with one.

The script may echo a hundred Hollywood pictures where a protagonist must scurry to meet a deadline imposed by a will, threat, or wager, but it has been adapted as if it were the basis for a French art film. Well, it is a French art film. The director—Leconte, who has also overseen Intimate Strangers and The Girl on the Bridge—and the leading man (Daniel Auteuil, star of Caché and Les Voleurs) are veterans of the French industry and American art houses. They bring an understated subtlety to a screenplay that’s schematic and obvious.

This collision of sensibilities produces more sparks than crumpled fenders, and the result is a modest comedy that’s consistently amusing and often affecting. Perhaps that’s because Leconte is working both sides of the road. He co-authored a story premise that is so simple and clear that it frees the director and his cast from worrying much about exposition. Instead they focus on nuances of character that allow the movie to transcend its clumsy setup.

Much of that is due to Auteuil. Just as he did in Caché, he plays a successful middle-aged man with a troubled inner life, only this time it’s played for laughs rather than tragedy. In My Best Friend, Auteuil’s François is an antique dealer so devoted to his work that he sits in the back of a church during a funeral and calls clients on his cell phone before approaching the widow about a valuable bureau her husband was about to sell him. Auteuil never overplays François’ villainy; he simply radiates the assumption that this is how business gets done.

He is so oblivious to those around him that he doesn’t even realize that his business partner Catherine (Julie Gayet) is a lesbian. She’s so offended by this that she challenges him to prove he has any true friends. The bet is on, and François sets about acquiring a friend as if he were acquiring a Napoleonic settee. These are some of the movie’s funniest scenes, as François plasters a fake smile on his face and tries to convince a business partner and a former classmate from grade school that they’re his bosom buddies. They’re not fooled a bit, and the more the anxious Auteuil tries to remain affable, the more laughs he gets.

Before long, François is so desperate that he asks for help from the cab driver who’s been ferrying him to these rendezvous. Bruno (Dany Boon) is a working-class guy whose ugly blue jacket contrasts as sharply with François’ tailored suits as his genuine friendliness differs from the antique dealer’s calculating charm. Bruno has obviously been assigned the sitcom duty of teaching this rich man an important life lesson, and he eventually does.

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But this cab driver is not the angelic hero he might be in a dumber sitcom. Instead he has the annoying habit of spouting trivia-contest facts at every opportunity. You can see his blue-collar pals turning him off when he does this, and Bruno suffers from his own strain of loneliness. In fact, the second half of the movie offers a fascinating study of Bruno using François for his own purposes even as the dealer is using the driver for his. More fascinating still, they appear to grow genuinely close in spite of their ulterior motives. It’s the rare movie that can acknowledge how selfish deceit and true friendship may coexist.

In the end, My Best Friend is too gimmicky—it climaxes with Bruno on the French version of Who Wants to Be a Millionaire—to ever be a great movie, but it offers plenty of small pleasures. Much of those come in fleeting revelations of character by the terrific cast—not just from the wonderful leads but also from Julie Durand as François’ petulant daughter, Élizabeth Bourgine as his neglected lover, and Marie Pillet as Bruno’s doting mother.

MY BEST FRIEND  *  *  * 

Directed by Patrice Leconte. • Starring Daniel Auteuil, Dany Boon, Julie Gayet, Julie Durand and Henri Garcin. • PG-13, 94 min. •At the Osio Cinemas.

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