Broken English: Zoe Cassavetes’ Romantic Dramedy

Sundance Film Festival, January 20, 2007 (World Premiere, Dramatic Competition)–“Broken English,” the new romantic serio-comedy, is directed by Zoe Cassavetes, daughter of the distinguished filmmaker John Cassavetes and actress Gena Rowlands (and sister of director Nick). It is a pleasant, mildly entertaining film, with strong performances from Parker Posey in the lead and Drea de Mateo as her friend.

Disregard the film’s title, which is too literal and doesn’t do justice to the richer subtext of this indie variation of the old, much cherished, Hollywood genre. At one point, when Parker and de Mateo arrive in Paris, the cab driver wishes them to have “happiness,” but speaking in a heavy accent, they think he’s wishing them to have “a penis.” And when Posey and Melvil Poupaud go on a date, and he says he’s hungry, she thinks he said he was angry. (This aspect of the narrative is by now banal)

As scripted by Zoe, the film could have easily been titled “Two Girls in Paris,” and indeed, the story is very much an updated version of cross-cultural romances that go back to the 1950s with various American girls (young and old, virgins and spinsters) go abroad and experience for the first time in their lives romantic love. You may recall the schmaltzy “Three Coins in the Fountain,” set in Rome, or the more substantial David Lean’s “Summertime,” set in Venice, where Katharine Hepburn falls for a married Italian.

“Broken English” is neither schmaltzy nor too substantial, but it displays on screen a uniquely female perspective on the issue of societal and familial pressures on women to fall in love and, more importantly, get married before it’s too late. In this respect, the film’s subtext is more interesting than its overt text. I wish Zoe digged deeper into this theme, the double standards that still prevail in American culture about the meaning of love and marriage for men and women.

Even so, distributor Magnolia should do well with its indie chick flick, a date movie set in New York and Paris, which features Posey in an uncharacteristically subtle and understated performance (one of her very best), after “specializing” for a whole decade in playing bright but cynical and harsh women.

Posey is in the right age to play the thirtysomething Nora, a sexy, funny, and creative woman who’s stuck with a hotel job as its public relations manager, waiting for something more significant to happen.

The sage begins with a celebration of the fifth wedding anniversary of Nora’s best friend and confidante Audrey (Drea de Mateo), with declarations of love and commitment from her husband. Which immediately signals to us that Audrey is not particularly happy and that her marriage may be on the rocks.

Nora’s parents (played by Zoe real-life mother Gena Rowlands and director Peter Bogdanovich) wish their daughter find a man of her caliber and settle downbefore she gets too old (the whole biological clock thing).

There’s no lack of men in Nora’s life. First, she dates an actor named Nick (played by Justin Theroux), who stays in her hotel only to realize (in a fake scene) that he’s involved with another woman. Then there’s an architect whose specialty is designing chains of hotels, thus touching a nerve with Nora.

Parents and friends try to set her up with men but to no avail. Opportunity knocks, when she attends a Fourth of July party at her colleague’s house and unexpectedly meets a sexy Frenchman (Melvil Poupaud). Add their encounter to the list of cute (and cutesy) first meetings in Hollywood romantic comedies. Nora is in the elevator, about to leave, when Poupaud arrives and begs her to stay for another drink.

What’s a girl to do Nora stays, and one drink leads to another. Insecure for not sleeping with Poupaud in their first rendezvous, Nora finds it hard to believe that he’s seriously and romantically interested in her. Writer Zoe reverses the tables and now depicts Poupaud as a soundman whose girlfriend actress dumps him, when she falls for her leading man (a clich but we close one eye).

Last reel is set in Paris, when Nora, having quit her boring hotel job, goes to the city of lights and romance with Audrey to look for Poupaud. Except, she loses his phone number, which gives director Zoe some opportunities to explore the experiences of two American girls in Parisfor the first time.

Zoe comes up with diversions and digressions that keep us involved in the story, even if she occasionally succumbed to cultural stereotypes and clichs. Most of the French men in the movie, unlike their American counterparts, are portrayed as honest, sensitive, generous, and romantic.

Even so, it’s been quite a while since we have seen a cross-cultural romantic comedy whose heart is in the right place, even if the execution leaves much to be desired. A novice feature helmer, Zoe began her directing career in 1993, when she co-created and co-hosted the experimental “High Octane” for Comedy Central with Sofia Coppola. Her first short film, “Men Make Women Crazy Theory,” played at the 2000 Sundance Film Festival. Zoe’s other credits include commercials for Chase Manhattan Bank, Anna Sui, and Advair, music videos for Duncan Sheik and rocker John Fogerty, and short pieces for the band Chromeo and comedian Chris Rock.

Made on a small budget, the film looks decent, but no more. At this point, Zoe lacks command over the technical properties of film and she has problems with pacing; though it’s only 96 minutes, the film drags a bit.

Nonetheless, the tone of “Broken English” is sufficiently modulated, and Zoe captures the anxieties of a young middle-aged woman, who begins as a victim of societal expectations and gradually transformed into a mature individualistic femme in closer touch with her true feelings.

The main reason to see “Broken English” is Parker Posey’s wonderful performance, one that conveys vividly and realistically the hang-ups of a neurotic and repressed New York woman, who relies too much on drugs and liquor to survive the day, and particularly the night.

The film also benefits from strong chemistry between Parker and Poupaud, as a sexy Frenchman, who’s biologically younger than Nora but emotionally far more mature and confident.