A seemingly harmless joke sends a dinner party attended by family and close friends into chaos in What’s In A Name?, a French farce that vainly strives for Who’s Afraid Of Virginia Woolf?-style nastiness. Alexandre de La Patellière and Matthieu Delaporte’s comedy (based on Delaporte’s play) comes across as a poor man’s Carnage, with bitter resentments and cruel assumptions erupting from beneath its characters’ seemingly cheery, jovial façades. Before it can lay out its various players’ connections, though, the film must first engage in some stand-alone rapid-fire montage introductions for each of its protagonists, all of which are embellished with expository narration that gives the early going an Amélie-style cutesiness. More frustrating than these opening sequences’ aggressive whimsy, however, is their superfluousness. While they explicate a few key details, they provide no information crucial to the subsequent, fireworks-laden get-together.
That gathering is thrown by college literature professor Pierre (Charles Berling) and his high-school-teacher wife Elisabeth (Valérie Benguigui), and is attended by Elisabeth’s trombonist best friend Claude (Guillaume de Tonquedec), her brother Vincent (Patrick Bruel), and—after a short while—Vincent’s pregnant wife Anna (Judith El Zein). Before Anna arrives, Vincent confesses to the rest of his friends that he’s going to name his forthcoming son Adolphe. No matter Vincent’s protestations that it’s a tribute to the romantic hero of Benjamin Constant’s 19th-century French novel Adolphe, it’s a moniker that everyone—and Pierre in particular—finds to be the height of mindless insanity, as it will forever link the kid with Hitler.
The argument that follows is scripted and staged with amusing incisiveness, as Vincent’s defense of the name raises larger, prickly questions about cultural attitudes and biases, as well as the influence the past has on the present. Thanks to the believably comfortable rapport shared by the smooth-talking Vincent, arrogant Pierre, and noncommittal Claude—who’s dubbed “Switzerland” because of his refusal to jump into the contentious fray and take a side—this debate boasts an engaging liveliness. That energy reaches an apex when, after Vincent confesses to Claude that he’s just kidding and plans to name the child after his father Henri, Anna finally arrives and is lambasted by a still-clueless Pierre for dooming her son to a life of Nazi-centric taunts. That attack leads to an admission by Anna that further complicates the already-tense proceedings.
Unfortunately, what follows is a raft of tiresome revelations about the angry issues everyone has with everyone else—a turn of events that leads to hackneyed histrionics in which characters yell at each other while the victims of these tirades are dumbfounded and bewildered. While a few of their people-separated-by-walls compositions call too much attention to themselves, La Patellière and Delaporte direct this grievance-airing mayhem sharply. Yet no matter its aesthetic deftness or uniformly strong performances, What’s In A Name? is so taken with its acerbic dialogue that it loses its early, lightly humorous touch, much less any interest in thorny relationship dynamics. It becomes merely a one-note roundelay of angry name-calling.