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BROKEN ENGLISH

By DENNIS HARVEY
Variety, 1/21/07

 

A pitch-perfect lead performance by Parker Posey and debuting feature writer-helmer Zoe Cassavetes' deft, low-key approach raise "Broken English" a couple notches above the usual run of lonely-single-woman-seeking-romance-in-the-big-city yarns. Though there's little unfamiliar here, pic's tipping the scales more toward latent-depression drama and away from typical romcom situation gags (the humor here is more offhand) makes it seem truer to life than many similar exercises. HD-shot feature could connect with heroine's own general demographic in theatrical release with careful outreach, though lack of obvious hooks and eventual falloff in narrative drive will prove less problematic in drumming up ancillary sales.

35-ish Nora (Posey, shown above with Gena Rowlands, mother of director Zoe Cassavetes) is very good at what she does--deal with V.I.P. needs and orchestrate special events as Guest Relations chief at a Manhattan boutique hotel--even if she'd once hoped to work in the art world. Nor has her personal life worked out as expected, a fact driven home at start by the fifth wedding anniversary of best friend Audrey (Drea de Matteo) and still-adoring husband (Tim Guinee)...even if the female half of this "perfect couple" isn't so happy as she appears.

Still, marriage gone slightly stale is a lot more than Nora has gotten close to, and as her well-meaning but tactless mother (Gena Rowlands) points out, "the good ones get snapped up" all too quickly "at your age." Nora vasciillates between forcibly "putting herself out there" as friends urge, and abstaining entirely from the ever-disappointing dating realm. Further evidence in favor of withdrawl is provided by Nick Gable (Justin Theroux), a well-known actor and hotel guest who seduces Nora one drunken evening; the next day a celebrity gossip show on national TV informs her that he's involved with his costar. A blind date with seemingly nice, normal Charlie (Josh Hamilton) ends when they run into his recent ex, after which he tearfully admits he's "not over her yet."

Thus Nora is not in an receptive frame of mind when she drags herself to a nerdy co-worker's (Michael Panes) sparsely attended 4th of July party. She's about to flee when his visiting friend Julien (Melvil Poupaud) arrives--a handsome, younger Frenchman whose attentiveness is so intense and ardent it's got to be an act. Or does it? Their time together is brief but (mostly) idyllic.

When Julien must return to Paris a few days later, he impulsively asks her to "run away with" him, though they barely know each other and she speaks no French. But she's too cowardly (or perhaps realistic) to make such a blind leap.

The bleak return to everyday life, however, pushes Nora to the brink of clinically depressive stasis. (Which the film plays straight-up, though without making a histrionic fuss about it.) Accompanied by the pushier Audrey, she flies to Paris to find Julien, though since he has a common name and she's lost his phone number, that proves a near-hopeless task.

While traipsing to Paris usually gives romantic comedies a big lift, here it actually makes narrative drag a bit, as Nora wanders aimlessly around the city. A formulaic but satisfying, underplayed twist of fate ends pic on a warm note, however.

Cassavetes (daughter of Rowlands and the late John) has crafted a screenplay that nicely balances seriousness and wit, negotiating familiar territory with enough alert intelligence to avoid excess deja vu. As a director, she seems mostly focused on the very good performances, which are often funny but more subtle than the norm for this terrain. Pic is otherwisely competently crafted if lacking much panache, esp. visually. (Color palatte in particular is rather dull.) Allowed to shade character more delicately than in her outright comedy roles, Posey easily carries the whole enterprise on her petite shoulders.

Ethereal electronica score by Scratch Massive is a plus in modest but decent prod package.

 

An HDNet Films and Magnolia Pictures presentation of a Vox3 Films and Phantom Film Co. Ltd. production in association with Backup Films. Produced by Andrew Fierberg, Jason Kliot and Joana Vicente. Executive producers, Todd Wagner, Mark Cuban. Co-producer, Keisuke Konishe. Directed, screenplay by Zoe Cassavetes.

Nora Wilder - Parker Posey
Julien - Melvil Poupaud
Audrey Andrews - Drea de Matteo
Vivien Wilder-Mann - Gena Rowlands
With: Justin Theroux, Peter Bogdanovich, Tim Guinee, James McCaffrey, Josh Hamilton, Bernadette Lafont, Michael Panes.