While it’s a neat showcase for its leads, Hulu’s latest is more amiable than truly amusing.
Eugenio Derbez has followed all the proper steps for any comedic leading man, including breaking out with a movie whose success nobody saw coming (Instructions Not Included) to side roles in long-forgotten blockbusters (Geostorm). Now he’s taken a cue from many other modern stars of the genre like Adam Sandler or Melissa McCarthy and moved to ‘streaming service A-lister’ with Hulu’s latest, The Valet.
In this remake of a 2006 French movie of the same name, Derbez plays Antonio, who works as a valet at a restaurant in Beverly Hills. Situated in the same city yet seemingly living on another planet is movie star Olivia Allan (Samara Weaving), who’s been carrying on a secret affair with Vincent Royce (Max Greenfield). The two get caught together in a photo by the paparazzi, which could jeopardize both of their careers. Also in that snapshot? Antonio, right after he accidentally crashes into a parked car.
His presence in the photo spurs an idea: What if Allan pretends she’s dating Antonio and Royce was just a bystander in that picture? A fake romance unfurls from here, one in which two people from vastly different socioeconomic backgrounds will have to fake being lovers in front of the whole world. Antonio’s perpetual cluelessness and Royce’s uncertainties initially make it seem like it’s going to be impossible to pull this off. However, a friendship begins to blossom between the duo that could allow them to both grow in necessary ways.
The Valet’s screenplay, by Rob Greenberg and Bob Fisher, is a relaxed creation that’s often just about good vibes and acts of kindness. There’s a sense of empathy between the characters more often than not; they’re not all just bickering or saying hurtful things to wring a giggle out of the audience. The jokes themselves are also often quieter than expected. There’s room for sex jokes and other instances of bawdy humor, but the production has a welcome tendency to eschew playing things super broad. Fart jokes are nowhere to be found, nor are gratuitous bits of extended slapstick or ham-fisted pop culture references.
Going in a subdued direction heavy on empathy allows The Valet to uncover unexpected sources of comedy, such as the budding friendship between a pair of private eyes, Stegman (John Pirruccello) and Kapoor (Ravi Patel). Each initially tasked with keeping tabs on Antonio and Olivia separately, they gradually work together and develop a rapport that delivers the biggest laughs of the movie. A visual gag where Stegman is pouring whiskey from a flask into a teeny tiny milk carton is especially amusing.
Meanwhile, the plot of The Valet is commendable for hinging its plot on slightly lighter than usual ideas for a romantic comedy sent straight to streaming. The villainy of antagonist Royce is defined by how he wants to gentrify the area Antonio and his neighbors call home, for starters. Then there’s Olivia’s backstory informing her perpetual loneliness. As she observes, the only people that hang around Olivia are those on her payroll while her own mother previously tried to steal away every penny she made from acting.
Olivia’s plight is a microcosm of Western capitalism, where money is all that matters and it’s OK if human lives get crushed in the pursuit of all that cash. The Valet supposes that the antidote to this is the camaraderie and close bonds of immigrant families. These are depicted as heroic qualities in contrast to capitalistic individuals like Royce, an intriguing subtext informed by charming scenes consisting of Antonio and his loved ones just hanging out.
While these story details are a welcome presence in The Valet, they also could’ve been developed more to be truly impactful. Antonio’s neighborhood, especially, remains vaguely defined throughout the movie. We only meet one resident of this area that isn’t a direct relative to Antonio, with this limited scope making it harder to understand the human cost of gentrification within the context of this story.
Meanwhile, the emphasis on the specific struggles facing Antonio as a Mexican-American man provides an intriguing insight into his psychological space. However, being conscious of this element makes early scenes between him and Olivia unintentionally mega-uncomfortable. As a rich white woman tells Antonio to stop speaking, forces him to shave his mustache, and engages in other controlling behavior, the discomforting disparity in the power dynamic becomes a distraction.
It’s laidback enough to feel amiable more than alienating.
Romantic comedies like Pretty Woman have always created conflict out of people from different economic classes bonding, and those are clearly the kinds of interactions director Richard Wong is channeling here. However, The Valet’s serious treatment of racial stigmas makes it hard to ignore the underlying implications of Olivia’s behavior, writing her actions off as conceited rather than pernicious.
Wong and cinematographer Mateo Londono’s visual sensibilities are also unremarkable, especially appalling with all the horrid green-screen work in any scene set inside a moving automobile. Worst among The Valet’s shortcomings, though, is that it’s just not very funny. Early gags mocking the world of Hollywood showbiz feel super dated (cutting-edge references to juice diets) while other jokes carry more than a whiff of obligation. Some moments feel like the writers realized a scene lacked jokes and squeezed in a cheap one-liner to make sure The Valet still felt like a comedy.
The Valet is a curious movie — a romantic comedy that struggles with laughs and uses a fluffy aesthetic to undercut any nods towards weightier concepts. Still, it’s laidback enough to feel amiable more than alienating, further aided by solid lead turns from Derbez and Weaving, the latter of whom especially excels in her character’s goofiest scenes. You could do way worse when it comes to streaming movie comedies anchored by recognizable stars.
The Valet pulls up to Hulu May 20th.