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The French Did It First: Comedy Remakes (Part 2)

Updated: Dec 2, 2023

We now continue our French-to-American comedy remake breakdown with the mid-‘80s classic, Three Men and a Baby (1987). Or, as the French first knew it, Three Men and a Cradle (1985).


2. Trois Hommes et un Couffin (1985)

Trois Hommes et un Couffin (1985)

Synopsis:

Three bachelors who share an apartment have their lives turned upside down when a baby is left at their doorstep.


FR: US:

PIERRE (Roland Giraud) — PETER (Tom Selleck)

MICHEL (Michel Boujenah) — MICHAEL (Steve Guttenberg)

JACQUES (André Dussollier) – JACK (Ted Danson)

SYLVIA (Philippine Leroy-Beaulieu) – SYLVIA (Nancy Travis)

N/A — REBECCA (Margaret Colin)


Trois Hommes et un Couffin is a true French original. Writer/director Coline Serreau invented this iconic tale of accidental fatherhood with a title that speaks for itself. With all the baby bonding, one might be inclined to forget another prominent feature of the story: a heroin deal gone wrong. Serreau handles that angle with routine grace, so much so that by the end, you forget that these three dudes initially gave away their baby to two sketchy-looking men who proceeded to strap it to the back of a motorcycle. Ah, the comedy of misunderstandings. Classic.

Three Men and a Baby (1987)

The American remake came just two years after, starring Magnum P.I., Sam from Cheers and Cadet Carey Mahoney of Police Academy. The film was no doubt a solid excuse to assemble three ‘80s heartthrobs to act all cute next to a baby, but some other details render it quite interesting: it was directed by Leonard Nimoy (ever heard of Spock? That’s him) and the screenplay was adapted by the future writers of Sister Act II: Back in the Habit (1993). Hell yeah.


Whereas The Birdcage’s visceral storytelling elevated the material of La Cage aux Folles, I believe that Nimoy’s stylization of Three Men and a Baby was a mistake. Hollywood in the ‘80s was full of questionable decisions in the realm of music, set dec and wardrobe (with the notable exception of Selleck’s short shorts), and Nimoy’s remake embodies most of them. Any plot changes were either for action’s sake or kissing the ass of the boys in blue. I probably should’ve expected that given my background knowledge of two of the leads’ best-known roles, but it did not stop the movie from radiating cheese at every possible turn.*

*Note: to find a copy of Trois Hommes et un Couffin, I had to rent it using a VPN for a French streaming website, so I had no subtitles. I think I walked away understanding more jokes than I thought I would, but nonetheless, a disclaimer about the language barrier is necessary.



Structure:

The movies both start the same: the roommates are throwing a party. They are successful gentlemen, and many women come and go from their bachelor pad. Jacques/Jack is the most womanizing of them all. He accepts a friend’s request to intercept a package (does he know it’s heroin? Let's leave that to the judge). Then Jacques/Jack flies away for a significant amount of time. In the French version, Jacques is a pilot gone on vacation to Japan. In the American version, Jack is an actor gone to film on-location in Turkey. Pierre/Peter and Michael/Michel stay behind to watch the house.

A baby arrives. The two men are confused – Jack warned them of a package, but he did not specify what it was. The note in the baby carriage says that she is Jack’s and the baby’s name is Marie/Mary. They are understandably pissed at Jack. As they figure out what to do, the neighbor comes by with a smaller package. They are so distracted that they don’t notice its arrival. When two of Jacques/Jack’s drug dealer friends come by looking for the package, the men assume they are talking about the baby, and they give it over. When they realize their error, Pierre/Peter runs out into the street to stop the drug dealers. The chaos is noticed by a policeman. Pierre gets the baby back, the drug dealers make an escape, and Pierre is forced to show the policeman into his apartment, while Michel/Michael hides the drugs in the lining of the baby’s diaper. Thus, the game.


What’s different? Well, in the French version, Jacques is gone for about ⅔ of the movie. When he shows up, he is overwhelmed and attempts to put the burden on others, but eventually he accepts that which he cannot change. In the American version, Jack returns sooner after being cut from his movie, forcing him to take greater immediate responsibility for the situation.

In the French version, Michel and Pierre are being followed by the drug dealers 24/7 to get the package back. At one point, they leave the baby in the apartment alone so they can finally go to their jobs. They return to find that the apartment has been ransacked from top to bottom, and Marie has been left in a closet with a death threat. In the American version – likely because the writers were wary of the reaction of the American public to a CPS-worthy demonstration of child neglect – the men leave the baby with their older neighbor, Mrs. Hathaway. In the ensuing sequence (which is unintentionally funny), the guys come back to the raided apartment and discover Mrs. Hathaway tied up in the living room. Peter notices her but is more concerned about the baby, so he sprints around the comically large open-concept apartment with the accompaniment of a Chariots of Fire-worthy score until he finds Mary in the wreckage.


Mrs. Hathaway is never mentioned again. Did she just not tell anyone that she was tied up? What happened to the investigation, or her trauma? I have no idea. But that’s one of the reasons I believe this movie is less intelligent than its French counterpart.

In the original, Michel and Pierre perform Jack’s transaction in a public park. Michel disposes of the heroin-lined diaper in a trashcan, and the drug dealers usurp it. The police are none the wiser. Bummer. The undercover cop assigned to the case pops up in the third act to ask how they did it, but nothing comes of it. In the American version, the drug deal is the third-act climax, and the three guys are backed by the police. Michael tapes the transaction with his trusty camcorder. When the dealers notice Michael, the gang unleashes a series of Home Alone-style booby traps, and there’s a silly part where Jack pulls the wrong lever for the elevator power as the bad guys try to escape. The police pat the backs of our three dashing heroes as Jack sensitively cradles young Mary. Wow. They are so talented and rugged and handsome.


Most disappointing is how the American remake altered the ending. Sylvia (Marie/Mary’s mom) eventually comes back to fetch her. In the French version, she is gone for a few months. But Michel runs into her one night and realizes that Sylvia is not able to take very good care of Marie – he enters her home and finds that the baby is often left with a grad student babysitter. He can’t say anything, but because he is aware of the situation, it makes their grief at losing the baby that much more potent. Sylvia eventually shows up to their apartment to admit her shortcomings as a mother. The three men are so grateful to have Marie back. When they finish celebrating (shirtless, mind you, and wearing high-rise jeans), they find the exhausted Sylvia asleep, sucking her thumb, in Marie’s crib. What a finish!

In the American version, Sylvia shows up to take the baby and fly back to London with her that night. Of course, a great airport race ensues. But they were too late! However, when they return to the apartment, there is Sylvia – already exhausted after one day. The men offer to let her stay with them in the bachelor pad. She accepts. F*ck London, I guess. The men each take turns with Mary at their jobs. The last image is of the three men and Sylvia pushing an extra wide stroller handle, large enough for her now four parents. Whooptee-doo!


Characters:

Understandably, some of the occupations in the American version were adjusted to be relatable, with Jack as an actor and Michael as a cartoonist. An actor is a little more interesting than a pilot, and it feeds directly into egotistical stereotypes, so easier characterization! Otherwise, they have similar demeanors to the French version: Pierre/Peter is the oldest, and most classically father-like, Michel/Michael is sensitive and maternal, and Jacques/Jack is a manipulative little scamp. Michael’s role is somewhat reduced in the American version because Jack returns home sooner, which is a bummer because Michel Boujenah and Steve Guttenberg are the highlights of their respective movies. Guttenberg's restrained delivery of "Jack, you’re always thinking about yourself. You’re such a jerk. I want to kill you," is my favorite part of the movie.

Pierre is considerably more dislikable and possessive in the French version than in the Peter character written for America’s sweetheart, Tom Selleck. Jack comes off as more fun-loving than the trifling Jacques. I think the fact that the French version dared to make their characters unpleasant works better for the group dynamic. They may not be perfect, but Michel and Pierre go out of their way to cover for Jacques, even if he doesn’t really deserve it.


In the American version, Peter has a long-term girlfriend, but they have an open relationship because they are both well-to-do and attractive. Rebecca does not exist in the French version. This is one addition to the story that I DO like. Say what you will about the Working Girl stereotype, but Margaret Colin is ridiculously elegant in the role and provides a nice contrasting perspective to the expectations of the men. One evening, Peter tries to get her to help with the baby. She simply tells him “no," before leaving for a date with her new boy toy. Not her problem. Girlboss!

Additionally, the motivations of Jacques/Jack’s mom differ. The original sees Jacques making a long journey to see his mother in order to beg her to take care of the baby. She accepts, but she’s going on a cruise in the Caribbean for 2-3 months, so not until after her trip. He flies home and solemnly accepts that he must reduce his work hours to help out.


In the American version, Jack’s mom lives nearby, and when he brazenly asks for her assistance, she says “I’m going to do the most wonderful thing in the world for you: absolutely nothing.” He complains of his many failures. She adds, “you were a screw-up. Now you’re a father.” Good advice! A bit unrealistic, but it’s fortunate that these female characters draw the line. In the French version, Pierre attempts to get a live-in nanny, but he is reluctant to give up power, and he ends up kicking her out of the house. Whereas the French guys basically denied any help from others, the Americans were directly refused help. “Pull yourself up by your bootstraps, lads.” The American way!


Technicals:

The Parisian apartment in the original film is classic and understated. The team utilized mostly natural light during the day and soft tungsten light at night, creating a gorgeous glow against the dark wood furniture. There are no dramatic chase scenes or energized montages – just intimate moments between men and baby, and the occasional classical needle drop. It’s a chill movie, even with the inter-roommate bickering, with some lovely mise-en-scène. Cinematographer Jean-Yves Escoffier is best known for his work on Good Will Hunting and many collaborations with Leos Carax. His co-cameraman, Jean-Jacques Bouhon, has not done much else of note.


The American version was shot by Adam Greenberg, best known for Terminator, Terminator 2 and Rush Hour, which makes… a lot of sense. I’m sure this movie looked awesome in a theater: it makes great use of windows and exterior city lights. The whole apartment set is even modified for the characters’ personalities: architectural boldness (Peter), hand-painted wall designs (Michael) and lounge-style memorabilia (Jack). It is a truly stunning bachelor pad.

But the action sequences do require some suspension of disbelief, and the characters operate on a level of customized, private-elevator wealth that is far less sympathetic than the aging Parisian townhouse. The sped-up introductory and closing montages (edited by Michael A. Stevenson of The Sandlot, Honey, I Shrunk the Kids! and Garfield: the Movie fame) are just plain corny. The moments don’t feel like proper moments because the movie is in such a rush to build anticipation for its clean denouement. It reads like a series of juxtaposed "cute" situations instead of a legitimate character journey.


Jokes:

Both movies are quite funny. French humor is a little different than American humor. The French are inherently sarcastic in a self-deprecating way. American sarcasm often reads as arrogant. They're both assertive, confrontational cultures, but the French version plays up the embittered interrelational farce, whereas the American version predominantly showcases "good-natured" passive aggression.

In both versions, Pierre/Peter goes to the store to buy baby formula, and a woman explains the intricacies of identifying the correct food/diaper/rubber nipples. The men end up buying diapers that are far too big for a 4-month-old. There is a poopy diaper-changing scene. Pierre/Peter gets peed on. Highbrow baby stuff.


There is a bit more skepticism from the side of the cop in the French version about the two guys raising the baby (including some gay allusions), and much humor is derived from Pierre being a huge asshole to the nanny he tries to hire. Her name is Madame Rapons, but he has a recurring slip-up where he calls her Madame Parons (pronounced like French “parent”), so there’s a jeu de mots there. He warns her not to try to sleep with any of them. Ok, Pierre.

Michel being mommy-ish is given a lot of comedic attention, as is the trio’s compromised social life. Jacques finally manages to get a girl over but must wake up in the middle of the night to tend to Marie. When the liaison sees the three roommates singing a lullaby, she volunteers to leave. Ah, babies: that pesky vibe-killer. Michel and Pierre literally click their heels when Marie is picked up by Sylvia for the first time, as they are overjoyed by the promise of finally being able to have sex.


Both movies feature a silly scene in which Jack/Jacques put a pillow under their shirts and pretend to be pregnant. It’s a cute moment, although many of Michel’s star scenes are stolen by Jack in the remake. Jack remarks that the baby can’t be his, because “the child doesn't look anything like me... I’m bigger, and I have more hair.” Not long after he accepts his fate, he is so swept up in parenthood that proceeds to miss a call from his roommates because he’s taking a shower with Mary. (Yeah, it’s pretty cute).

Both movies emphasize how men are out of touch with baby care. Initially, the phrase “sterilize the nipples” shocks Peter to his core, although Pierre/Peter becomes far more confident about his abilities over the course of the film. I


n the remake, when Mrs. Hathaway overshares that, “Mr. Hathaway has a low sperm count,” Michael responds, “Well, some guys have all the luck.” The final vignettes of the movie show Jack carrying the baby in a cross-body holder as he performs a stage play as well as Peter getting a LOT of female attention at a park while he holds Marie. Clearly, there are more brief, one-off gags in the American version. Consequently, it’s a tad oversimplified and saccharine.

Culture:

The French depicted child neglect. The Americans did not. The French did crime. The Americans did the “right thing.” The French did not have as many female perspectives in the movie, but the presence of Serreau is felt in the intimate moments that propel legitimate character development. The Americans went for the blockbuster jugular. The French kept it lowkey. I think this is going to be the most obvious example of Americanization that we will see in this project: the narrative “sweetening” kind of speaks for itself.


Legacy:

The Americans were not the only ones to remake the movie. There are seven others, six of which are Indian productions. I would also argue that the Blue Sky animated film Ice Age (2002) is essentially a prehistoric retelling of the film’s premise.

The French original did secure a Best Foreign Language Film nomination at the 1986 Academy Awards. Domestically, it swept the Cesars that year, winning Best Film, Best Writing, and Best Supporting Actor (for the delightful Michel Boujenah). It then inspired a 2003 sequel directed by Serreau called 18 ans après (18 Years Later), at which point Marie is, you guessed it, 18 years old. It grossed a little under $9 million – over four times that of the original. The American version received a sequel called Three Men and a Little Lady in 1990, with the three leads and cinematographer Greenberg returning (although, no Spock). It got mixed reviews but grossed $71.5 million, which is not bad for a middling sequel to an original that made well over twice that amount. Apparently, there is a Disney+ reboot in the works with Zac Efron attached, but it’s been in studio purgatory since the pandemic.


In my opinion, the original has aged well. More men are stay-at-home dads these days (according to Forbes, up 8% in the U.S. between 1989 and 2021), and the promotion of co-parenting for the child’s sake as a practical thing rather than an obligatorily romantic one is a healthy thing for society to observe. As for the remake, I think the ‘80s were just a weird time to be making movies in the studio system. The remake is cute enough, but it lacks the weight of the original. It doesn’t compel us to ask ourselves whether any of the characters are unfit to be parents, or how much sacrifice is required to fulfill that role. For the most part, the three silly guys are put into a situation, and they charm their way through it.

Stay-at-home dads will likely always be more admired than stay-at-home moms because of prevailing gender norms. Audiences like watching men take care of babies because it’s unconventional and endearing. It’s difficult not to see the success of this storyline through this lens. But we can also appreciate the movies for challenging the notion of a woman's inherent burden to rear a child. Men are equally capable of loving someone so tenderly that they’d risk it all for them, and not by any show of weakness. It probably makes it a little easier to raise a child when you have two others helping you out, though. Perhaps we shall soon see the rise of the tri-parent household.


Stay tuned for the final part of the series, featuring Le Dîner de Cons (1998).


-Lydia

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