Broken English (United States, 2007)

A movie review by James Berardinelli

For her feature debut, writer/director Zoe Cassavetes has elected to tread into territory where even the best stories feels like clichés. Broken English is competently made and features a solid performance from lead actress Parker Posey, but it's the kind of film that will resonate only with a tiny fraction of the available audience. Unless a viewer's age and situation mirrors that of Posey's Nora Wilder, odds are that this movie will generate a sense of déjà vu. Casavetes tells her tale, but it's one we've already seen, and she doesn't bring much that's new or fresh to the narrative.

Approaching 40, Nora is growing increasingly despondent about her single status. Her best friend, Audrey (Drea de Matteo), is celebrating her fifth anniversary to a man Nora might have married. By day, Nora is the head of guest relations at a prestigious hotel. By night, she looks for love but constantly finds Mr. Wrong. Her would-be beaux include a cad of an actor (Justin Theroux) currently involved in another relationship and a nice guy (Josh Hamilton) who's hung up on his ex. Finally, Nora meets Julian (Melvil Poupaud), a Parisian visiting Manhattan. They hit it off but just as they're starting to connect, Julian must return to France. It's up to Nora to determine whether or not to follow him.

To Cassavetes' credit, this doesn't fall into the category of a formulaic romantic comedy. There's a little more substance than that. In fact, most of the third act is devoted to Nora's journey of self-discovery. As she learns, in order to be able to secure a future with a man, she must be comfortable with herself and her choices in life. The problem with driving home this message is that it represents the movie's least compelling 30 minutes. It's also odd that the movie chooses to end on exactly the same beat as the far superior Before Sunset. Hint to the director: never remind viewers of a better film in such an obvious way.

Nearly everything about Broken English is okay. The screenplay is okay. The cinematography, which includes shots of Paris, is okay. The direction is okay. The supporting performances are okay. The movie doesn't contain anything that allows it to stand out. It feels very much like the kind of thing I wouldn't mind watching on TV or DVD, but for which I would be unhappy paying an admission price.

This isn't Parker Posey's career-best performance, but she once again proves that she's capable of holding the viewer's attention even when the material isn't that great. She's an effective comedienne and dramatic actress, and both come into play here. Unfortunately, there's no noticeable chemistry between her and her semi-leading man, Melvil Poupaud, or the actress playing her best friend, Drea de Matteo, and this causes the relationships to feel half-formed.

Cassavetes is, of course, a member of the famous independent filmmaking clan. Her father was John Cassavetes and her mother, Gena Rowlands, makes an appearance here as Nora's well-meaning busybody of a mother. Broken English feels like a "safe" choice for a filmmaker who's getting her feet wet. It's direct and heartfelt, if ultimately only partially satisfying. This is the kind of movie that can find acceptance within the rarified atmosphere of a film festival (it premiered, was nominated for the Grand Jury prize, and was picked up for distribution at Sundance 2007), but loses its shine when released to general audiences. The movie's a little too stale and familiar to generate much excitement or enthusiasm.

Broken English (United States, 2007)

Director: Zoe Cassavetes
Cast: Parker Posey, Melvil Poupaud, Drea de Matteo, Griffin Dunne, Josh Hamilton, Justin Theroux, Gena Rowlands
Screenplay: Zoe Cassavetes
Cinematography: John Pirozzi
U.S. Distributor: Magnolia Pictures
Run Time: 1:38
U.S. Release Date: 2007-06-22
MPAA Rating: "PG-13" (Profanity, Sexual Situations)
Genre: DRAMA
Subtitles: none
Theatrical Aspect Ratio: 1.85:1