THE CLOSET — *** — Daniel Auteuil, Gerard Depardieu, Michel Aumont, Michele Laroque, Thierry Lhermitte, Jean Rochefort, Alexandra Vandernoot, Stanislaus Crevillen; in French, with English subtitles; rated R (vulgarity, profanity, partial nudity, brief sex, racial epithets, brief violence, brief drug use); exclusively at the Tower Theatre.

If you were to grade "The Closet" strictly on the number of belly laughs it provides, this comedy would probably receive a failing mark. After all, it's not hysterically funny, and there are relatively few sequences or lines of dialogue memorable enough to be referenced or quoted later.

Yet this French import is genial, likable, and perhaps, in its own peculiar way, even thought-provoking, and its gently barbed humor may at least put a smile on your face . . . which is more than can be said of most of its American competition. (Keeping that in mind, you hate to think what the all-too-inevitable American remake will be like.)

French character actor Daniel Auteuil stars as Francois Pignon, an accountant working for a large latex firm. Though he's a hard worker, he's perceived as something of a fuddy-duddy by his co-workers. Worse, he's a soon-to-be-unemployed fuddy-duddy, as he's horrified to discover by overhearing a privileged conversation.

Depressed at the prospect of losing the only positive thing left in his life, Francois decides to end it all. Fortunately, his new next-door neighbor (Michel Aumont) talks him out of it and also offers a solution — he may be able to keep his job if Francois pretends to be gay and leaks that information.

To his surprise, the ruse works — perhaps a little too well. Fearing he might be the next to be fired, Francois' former tormentor (Gerard Depardieu) cosies up to him. Then, his estranged ex-wife (Alexandra Vandernoot) and son (Stanislaus Crevillen) suddenly take a renewed interest in him.

Give credit to director Francis Veber (1999's "The Dinner Game") for not playing the material as broadly as he could have. Sure, it's occasionally strained, but it's more subtle than you'd expect from material this wacky.

Of course, much of the credit also has to go to the first-rate cast. Auteuil's character transformation from a meek, ineffectual accountant to a confident go-getter is very believable, as is the gradual breakdown of Depardieu's character.

Also, it's nice to see veteran French performers Aumont and Thierry Lhermitte getting work, though their characters aren't developed all that well.

"The Closet" is rated R for crude humor (including sexual props and vulgar slang terms), scattered use of strong profanity, partial male nudity (seen in photos), a brief sex scene (done for laughs), use of racial epithets, brief violence (a scuffle) and brief drug use (marijuana). Running time: 86 minutes.