Christine (Anny Duperey) is at her wits' end when her son Tristan (Stéphane Bierry) runs away from his Paris home with his new girlfriend to Nice. With her husband Paul (Michel Aumont) in tow, she heads off after him, tracking down the seedy hotel-owning father of the girl but dismayed when he is far from forthcoming about where they might be. As a last resort, Christine telephones an old boyfriend, Jean Lucas (Gérard Depardieu), a journalist, to inform him he is actually Tristan's father in the hopes this will perusade him to seek him out. When he refuses, she telephones another ex, the neurotic François Pignon (Pierre Richard), and tells him the same thing...
Although why she would resort to contacting a man who can barely look after himself is one of the implausibilities thrown up by writer and director Francis Veber's script. Look, he's about to commit suicide when Christine phones! She knows what he's like, even if she hasn't seen him in seventeen years! Anyway, so begins perhaps the most celebrated of the collaborations between master farceur Richard, iconic Depardieu and seasoned comedy director Veber. Their previous work together, Le Chèvre, had been such a success in its native France that it was natural a follow up would be next.
Not so much a comedy of mistaken identity as a comedy of hidden identity, it's not long before Lucas has changed his mind and decided, seeing as how he'll be in the Nice area as part of his investigations, that he will do Christine a favour and hunt Tristan down. Little does he know that Pignon has the same idea and is headed over to the same hotel to confront the girlfriend's father. Lucas gets there first and beats the information he needs out of the unfriendly chap, meaning when Pignon appears and asks the same questions he is hit over the head with a telephone for his trouble.
This is where the two would-be fathers meet, and believe they are in search of two separate boys who have teamed up, so the obvious thing to do is team up themselves. This is one of those films where, when they are driving along in Lucas's BMW and he boasts about how proud he is of the car, you know that he's going to be feeling let down badly by the end of the day. After chasing their leads, they eventually realise that they're looking for the same teenager and exasperations ensue; neither can give up the quest because the chances are that they are one of the three potential fathers after all.
After some amusing character stuff in the first half, such as Pignon's recent nervous breakdown causing him to cry at trivial incidents, but not when he has to turn on the tears for sympathy (tears of laughter have to do), the thriller aspects of Les Compères take over to a degree. All the way through the film we have seen a pair of unlovely hoods tracing Lucas, and this is because of the story on the Mafia he has been researching - the hoods want to silence him. Of course, it's Pignon who bears the brunt of their strongarm tactics, getting his only suit ripped to pieces, and if there's a problem with the humour it's that it tips over from slapstick into outright violence; nothing gory, but it is a bit much (Pignon even gets shot at one point). Otherwise, the antagonistic Richard-Depardieu team are highly entertaining, and even manage an unexpected poignancy by the close. Extremely catchy music by Vladimir Cosma.