June 21, 2007

Broken English

Zoe Cassavetes' feature directing debut riddled with coincidence and lonely-girl clichés

By R. Emmet Sweeney

A film out of its time, Broken English has the feel of a failed slacker indie from the '90s. Set in the more exotic quarters of Manhattan, it finds Nora Wilder, an upper-middle class twit played by Parker Posey, in the throes of a pre-mid-life romantic crisis. Snubbed by a slew of East Coast operators, only the restorative powers of a foreign other can save her, and here it arrives in the wiry form of a stubbled Frenchman named Julien (Melvil Poupaud). Posey’s character is abrasively unappealing, descending into self-pity at the drop of a date (at Film Forum!), moping through her day with the help of wine and valium. An understandable attitude for the Singles/Before Sunrise set, maybe, but these youthful insecurities are transferred whole into Posey’s 30-something, rendering her a pathetic woman-child, seemingly incapable of living on her own.

Unfortunately, Broken English is not intended to be a seedy peek into bourgeois self-loathing. Writer/director Zoe Cassavetes has something far more conventional in mind -- that loneliness is short-lived as long as one has the cash to fly to Paris with Drea de Matteo on a whim. What renders the benumbing cliché of the plot even more painful is the presence of Zoe's mother, Gena Rowlands; working in the shadow of her legendary parents must be difficult, but casting Ms. Rowlands as Nora’s mom makes it impossible not to recall her own incandescent take on mid-life breakdown in John Cassavetes’s galvanic A Woman Under the Influence (1974). Her tour-de-force proves that self-abnegation isn’t without its pathos.

Broken English has more modest goals, but mainstream pleasures evade its scattershot aim due to the enervating rhythm of the dialogue. Each conversation contains deadening empty spaces, as if the actors are pausing for a non-existent laugh track. There’s no detail to these cardboard urbanites, though there’s not much one can do with banalities like, “first you have to find love and happiness in yourself”, spoken by an older Parisian roué, one of many French mascots who dispense thematic statements in the nick of time. In New York, a fortune teller chases Nora to tell her, “Your father misses you!”, raising a figure barely discussed previously. It’s as though, realizing she had reached the page limit of her script, Cassavetes tried to shoehorn every lonely-girl motif she could into the final reel.

The coincidences (and non sequiturs) pile up with head-smacking speed until the final improbable cliché falls into place and our ludicrous heroine gets exactly what she wanted. The viewer, less so.

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