Old friends gather for dinner, conversation flows, and eventually the various truths held secret to preserve the social grace come out, forever altering relationships. There are scandals, reversals, vulnerable confessions, and in the end the characters learn as much about themselves as they do each other. A well-worn plot construct used in countless plays, this set-up requires character and chemistry to differentiate it and allow the work to stand out as doing something different, let alone good or engaging. What’s in a Name?, unfortunately, doesn’t do much to break away from the pack; a promising and clever opening quickly gives way to the familiar beats of these affairs, and it never recovers from that bland deflation.
Pierre (Charles Berling) and Élisabeth (Valérie Benguigui) are a married couple raising two young children, and working as educators (he a well-liked professor at Sorbonne, she a suburban teacher at an academically struggling middle school). They squabble a bit before the arrival of Claude (Guillaume de Tonquedec), Élisabeth’s friend of 30 years, who possesses an almost unnaturally temperate personality. Vincent (Patrick Bruel), Élisabeth’s brother and Pierre’s best friend, enters the home with news of his wife’s impending birth — they’ve decided to name him Adolphe. Pierre doesn’t care for the glancing allusion to Hitler, and then there are multiple arguments and shouting matches about propriety and the like. Dinner is served and Vincent’s wife, Anna (Judith El Zein), finally shows up and newfound areas of blunt honesty are explored — almost always with shouting and exaggerated gestures. Pranks hit too close to home, people find out what others really think of them, and a startling confession leads to the coffee table getting shattered and the kids finally waking up, despite all the other histrionics in the drawing room.
Writer/directors Alexandre de La Patellière and Matthieu Delaporte, adapting from their own hit play, begin the film with interesting profiles of most of the leads (though, despite Judith El Zein’s strong performance, Anna is a criminally underwritten character). And while it wasn’t that original — it’s essentially copping Amélie’s “life at a glance” vignettes to introduce its own cast — that opening utilized interesting editing and camerawork to quickly define these characters and humanize them. That energy is ditched in favor of group shots (or two shots of various couples bickering) and stale blocking. With the exception of the last “revelation” of the evening, all of the conversations are ultimately uninteresting — not addressing larger truths or cultural aspects that these diversions tend to skewer — and are all delivered at a loud and fast pitch that leaves the actors nowhere to go but to continue with that same pissy energy.
Originally released in France under the name Le prénom (“The Surname”) the change in title underlines the central theme of how we define ourselves and how others define us. From those opening vignettes, to a scene in which people hurl a dictionary at each other with adjectives that best describe them, to the final revelation of the baby’s name, What’s in a Name? is preoccupied with this idea of perceived identity. The film pursues variations on the same discussion for its running time, with every scene rooted in dialogue and wordplay. It’s just a shame it doesn’t have anything new to say.