Film Review: 'Chinese Puzzle' is solid entry in series

The big comedy release this week is Seth MacFarlane's "A Million Ways to Die in the West," which is just fine if you're a fan of grossout jokes. If your taste runs in a little, you could do worse than to check out "Chinese Puzzle," opening at the Playhouse 7 and other locales.

The film is the third in a series from French director Cedric Klapisch ("Paris," "When the Cat's Away"). In 2002, he made "L'Auberge Espagnole," a seemingly autobiographical comedy about Xavier (Romain Duris), an uptight French economics major, who reluctantly signs up for a student exchange program that lands him in Barcelona — in an apartment with six other students from various European countries. Think of it as "Friends" International. By the end, Xavier has loosened up, had romances, learned life lessons, and decided he'd rather be a novelist.

Five years later (in story time), Xavier and most of the gang returned in "Russian Dolls" (2005). Now a struggling writer, he is heading to Russia for the wedding of one of his former roommates. On the way, he narrates the story of his more recent romantic and professional conflicts. Despite weighing in at more than two hours, "Russian Dolls" goes down painlessly enough, but it had considerably less of the charm that powered its predecessor.

Now, after nearly a decade, Klapisch has conjured up "Chinese Puzzle," a third chapter in the adventures of Xavier and company. Our hero has grown up a bit; he still has difficulty adjusting to adulthood, but he has married Wendy (Kelly Reilly), the British representative of the group, and they have two children. He struggles to finish his latest book — constantly lying to his publisher about his progress — but at least he has a happy marriage and family.

Or so he thinks. Wendy has a great job lined up in New York, and she intends to take the kids with her. Of course, she later admits that she also is in love with someone in New York and no longer in love with Xavier. Missing the kids, Xavier moves to the Big Apple and crashes with old pal Isabelle (Cecile de France) and her Chinese American lover, Ju (Sandrine Holt). They are eagerly awaiting the birth of Isabelle's first child, whom she conceived with a little help from Xavier's sperm and the technology of artificial insemination. The situation is just bubbling with possible problems, like: Is Ju actually going to be comfortable with the technical father of her daughter living there?

That discomfort is nothing, however, to Xavier's first meeting with Wendy's new love, John (Peter Hermann), who is so much bigger — about a foot taller and twice as wide — that he could eat Xavier for breakfast. But, as it turns out, he's more sensitive and accepting than Xavier; it's pretty easy to understand why Wendy might prefer him.

Mix all of this in with getting a formal divorce, finding an American bride for a green card, dealing with the INS, trying to finish his book, taking a job as a bike messenger, and a sneaky parent-babysitter dalliance. On top of that, add the sudden reappearance of former love Martine (Audrey Tautou), who turns up in New York, where her friendship with Xavier becomes, well, a little confusing.

You don't have to have seen the other two installments, though, as a whole, the continuity is greatly enhanced by the presence of cast holdovers Duris, Tautou, de France, and Reilly. It helps even more that Xavier seems not nearly as big a pill as he did in "Russian Dolls." He still can't figure life out, despite the occasional imagined visits from Hegel and Schopenhauer, but he's less whiny about it.

As in the other films, Tautou — certainly the most famous of the cast — has the smallest part, but her innate adorability is well used. And it's worth giving a shout-out to Pablo Mugnier-Jacob, who plays Xavier's pre-adolescent son with a striking degree of nuance and believability.


ANDY KLEIN is the film critic for Marquee. He can also be heard on "FilmWeek" on KPCC-FM (89.3).

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