2½ stars (out of four)
A self-effacing directorial debut from Zoe Cassavetes, "Broken English" contains one of the year's best scenes: the semi-drunken prelude to a one-nighter involving a Manhattan hotel guest services manager, played by Parker Posey, and a sort-of-famous TV actor who has his temporary-sincerity act down pat, played with sly relish by Justin Theroux. Cassavetes, who wrote the script, proves her skill with actors in this woozy push-and-pull of slurred compliments and shaky hopes for whatever lies beyond the next day. She's likewise adept at capturing the feeling of being stranded at the four-way intersection of Pathetic, Hopeful, Laughable and Wry.
Posey hangs around that intersection as a rule. I wouldn't call her a surprising actress; she's more reliable than surprising. Anyway, a sense of surprise isn't easy to impart when you're the indie queen. That's what they call her, which doesn't really mean anything except that the diminutive, ubiquitous sprite with the deadpan rasp has made dozens of films for not a lot of money.
"Broken English" hands Posey a role of size and some texture, even though the writing is frustratingly uneven, the relational platitudes jostling with dialogue that actually sounds like human beings hashing things out. Call it a promising first film with moments exceeding that promise.
Cassavetes' narrative relates in scale and temperament to "Lost in Translation," which was made by Cassavetes' friend Sofia Coppola, another daughter of a famous filmmaker. Feeling trapped by her life and judged by family and friends for her singlehood, 35ish Nora (Posey) chances upon a garrulous young Frenchman (Melvil Poupaud) at a party in New York. Her defenses scrambled by lust, she questions herself: Is this guy like all the other losers?
On fuzzy business pretenses--the film, I think, had a bit more expositional detail in its Sundance festival appearance six months ago--Nora and her married best friend (Drea De Matteo) head off to Paris and search for the Frenchman with the Belmondo "Breathless" fedora. The most interesting material in Cassavetes' genial amble is the least plot-dependent. Near the beginning, in the New York section, we have the encounter with Theroux; near the end, Parker's character sits around a Paris bistro chatting up some new acquaintances. The scene feels improvised but necessary--a glancing lesson in cross-cultural social mores. More of that next time, please. It proves Cassavetes can capture the casual felicities of life, while proving she is indeed the daughter of the late John Cassavetes and the invaluable Gena Rowlands, who has a couple of scenes as Nora's kvetchy mother.
Written and directed by Zoe Cassavetes; photographed by John Pirozzi; edited by Andrew Weisblum; music by Scratch Massive; production design by Happy Massee; produced by Jason Kliot, Joana Vicente and Andrew Fierberg. A Magnolia Pictures release; opens Friday at Landmark's Century Centre Cinema. Running time: 1:36. MPAA rating: PG-13 (for some sexual content, brief drug use and language).
Nora - Parker Posey
Julien - Melvil Poupaud
Audrey - Drea De Matteo
Nick - Justin Theroux
Vivien - Gena Rowlands