Mickey Rooney was more convincingly Chinese in “Breakfast at Tiffany’s” than Teuton thesp Moritz Bleibtreu proves as a sham Sikh in “Vijay and I,” a limp “Mrs. Doubtfire”/”Tootsie” knockoff that serves mainly to illustrate just how tricky it can be to reproduce the feel of a well-oiled Hollywood romantic comedy in the no man’s land of Europudding tax-shelter production. Latest English-language feature by Belgian-based German helmer Sam Garbarski (“Irina Palm”) should post OK numbers in Germany (where it opens Sept. 5), but seems destined to find its most captive offshore audiences in-flight.
Like the characters played by Dustin Hoffman in “Tootsie” and Robin Williams in “Mrs. Doubtfire,” Bleibtreu’s Will Wilder is an actor whose career has become stuck in neutral, a German emigre with classical training reduced to playing a giant green rabbit on a New York City children’s TV program. Adding insult to injury, he’s about to turn 40, the spark has gone out of his marriage to Julia (Patricia Arquette), and his moody teen daughter, Lily (Catherine Missal), barely acknowledges his existence. Then an incredibly contrived series of coincidences results in Will being mistakenly declared dead — and, like Tom Sawyer before him, he decides to prolong the charade, curious to know what it would feel like to attend his own funeral.
Enter Will’s best friend, Rad (“Community” star Danny Pudi), an Indian-American restaurateur who happens to be seasoned in the art of ethnic deception: Because he’s convinced that real Indians will steal his recipes and open their own competing businesses, his entire wait and kitchen staffs consist of Latinos wearing turbans and sporting singsong accents. With the help of a little brown foundation and a paste-on gray beard … voila! Suddenly, Will is transformed into the stately Sikh banker Vijay Singh.
The funeral itself is the first in a series of missed comic opportunities played at about half the necessary speed, and with a lot of talented comic performers (including Jeannie Berlin and leading Israeli thesp Moni Moshonov as Arquette’s parents) standing around with little to do except stare in feigned conviction at Bleibtreu’s barely Halloween-level disguise. Still, somehow “Vijay” manages to pass himself off as an old friend of the deceased, including to his own former agent (Michael Imperioli) and even Julia herself, who takes a warm liking to this exotic stranger.
Somewhere here lie the makings of a fine farce, but on some fundamental level the script of “Vijay and I” (credited to Garbarski, regular collaborator Philippe Blasband and the American Matthew Robbins) doesn’t buy into its own outlandish premise. Although the movie revolves around the idea that Vijay is the role of Will’s career — allowing him to become both a better actor and a better man — nothing about Bleibtreu’s physical or psychological transformation suggests any level of urgency or commitment, or that Will himself is getting lost in the role. At several points in the film, Will even walks around in public, in broad daylight, sans makeup, after his supposed death.
Arquette, who can be such a quick, resourceful comedienne, has a particularly thankless role here, asked to play grieving widow one moment and hysterical shrew the next, with precious little middle ground. Everyone onscreen has the faint look of wanting the whole thing to be over as soon as possible, and it’s hard to blame them.