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The most defensible of James Toback’s indefensible movies, Fingers presented macho Manhattan hostility as an art form: The 1978 film’s protagonist—played, of course, by Harvey Keitel—was an aspiring concert pianist who spent his spare time collecting his bookie father’s bad debts and seducing blank young babes, always with more malice than lust in his heart. Now director Jacques Audiard has remade this mean-streets caprice as The Beat That My Heart Skipped, redefining “in-your-face” in terms of the fluttering vantage point of the new French handheld cinema. Whereas Toback shoved the lens directly into his own rancor, Audiard dances close to but not with the lead character and his pathology. The result is almost as nasty as the original, but also much more graceful.

Audiard, who co-scripted with Tonino Benacquista, plays only a few moments exactly the way Toback did, yet the central premise is barely altered: An enforcer for unscrupulous real-estate magnates, Tom drives squatters and other inconvenient residents from Paris properties scheduled for redevelopment. Played by lithe, glowering Romain Duris—who after Ma Mère’s Joana Preiss and A Tout de Suite’s Isild Le Besco has the worst overbite seen in a recent French movie—the feral young thug got into this line of work through his landlord father, Robert (Niels Arestrup), and he occasionally uses his skills to collect one of the old man’s debts. Then Dad asks Tom to muscle a Russian gangster, who turns out to be more dangerous than the small-timers he usually handles.

Like Keitel’s Jimmy, Tom is the son of a male hoodlum and a female musician. He hasn’t played piano seriously in years but is inspired when he happens to encounter his late mother’s former agent, who suggests that Tom audition for him. (Customarily, Tom wears headphones that pulse electroclash into his brain—Audiard’s update of Jimmy’s doo-wop and girl-group faves.) Glimpsing an escape route from his brutal life, he begins practicing Bach’s demanding Toccata in E Minor and is introduced to Miao-Lin (Linh-Dan Pham), a pianist newly arrived in Paris. Although angered when he learns that Miao-Lin speaks little English and even less French, Tom reluctantly accepts her as his teacher. His progress is painstaking but ultimately remarkable, although anyone who’s seen Fingers already knows that Tom will not prove to be the next Glenn Gould.

Recently, French art flicks have turned confrontational, celebrating fierce violence and brazen eroticism. Yet The Beat That My Heart Skipped is less badass than Fingers, with the sexual aggression tempered by discretion—and even love—and an almost uplifting fate arranged for Tom. From minute to minute, if not in its entirety, the film is also more plausible than the original. The plot is tighter, the human interactions more tenable, and the piano performances more convincing. Duris was tutored by his sister, professional pianist Caroline Duris, whose playing is actually heard on the soundtrack. Audiard incorporated elements of the actor’s training into Tom’s character and used one of Caroline’s offhand remarks as the voice of Tom’s late mother. Where Keitel merely looked as if he were doing facial exercises while sitting at a piano, Duris appears actually to play music—and to be moved by it.

Audiard has previously specialized in films about various kinds of hustlers: a phony Resistance veteran in A Self-Made Hero, a deaf office manager who allies with an ex-con in Read My Lips. (The female lead of the latter film, Emmanuelle Devos, has a cameo in this one.) Despite its underworld elements, the director’s latest is a little different. It’s the story of an education, and one that’s told in large part visually. As Tom looses rats on squatters or clocks a deadbeat with a heavy pan, the camera mimics his movements, parrying and lunging in near darkness. As the piano takes over his life, the images become less jittery and light begins to infiltrate the frame. The process culminates when Tom walks out into the sun and the camera follows. Of course, there are two violent codas that come after this epiphany—The Beat That My Heart Skipped is an account of a partial rehabilitation, not a transfiguration. But making a film this watchable from one of Toback’s ugly trifles does verge on the miraculous.

Incest, abortion, masturbation, gay parents, prostitution, marriages of convenience—Happy Endings’ plot points seem designed to provoke red-state America. Actually, though, writer-director Don Roos’ latest investigation of contemporary American morals seeks to demonstrate that its characters are, if not mainstream, certifiably human and essentially benign. As a political statement, that’s understandable. As a narrative strategy, however, it makes for an erratic slosh of farce and self-affirmation.

Snarky and enormously complicated, Happy Endings is named for the handjob that concludes a rubdown in some less reputable massage parlors. Yet the film is more concerned with beginnings—and their implications. Mamie (Lisa Kudrow) is an abortion counselor who’s never told anyone she didn’t get one. Impregnated by brand-new stepbrother Charley as a teenager, she went away for the procedure but instead decided to have the baby and give it up for adoption. (As if no one would have noticed that Mamie left for the clinic and didn’t come back for six months.) This buried trauma is unearthed when obnoxious would-be documentarian Nicky (Jesse Bradford) arrives with word of where Mamie’s now-19-year-old son is—which he’ll reveal only if she’ll let him film the reunion. Mamie’s boyfriend, Javier (Bobby Cannavale), tries to distract Nicky by suggesting a film about himself: a struggling Mexican-immigrant massage therapist forced to give happy endings to rich Anglo women. (As if the market for handjobs were predominantly female.)

Meanwhile, grown-up Charley (Steve Coogan) has his own baby trauma. His boyfriend, Gil (David Sutcliffe), donated his sperm to their lesbian pals Pam and Diane (Laura Dern and Sarah Clarke), but they claim not to have used it in the creation of their infant son. Charley decides they’re lying and instills his doubts into Gil. And then there’s garage-band drummer Otis (Jason Ritter), who works at Charley’s restaurant and masturbates to video-surveillance footage of his boss mopping the floor while wearing only his underpants. (As if this were the hottest gay porn available to an affluent Los Angelino.) At the restaurant, Otis meets the calculating Jude (Maggie Gyllenhaal), an aspiring singer who’s sort of the female Nicky; she poses as Otis’ girlfriend to mollify his father, Frank (Tom Arnold), who worries about his son’s sexuality. Jude joins Otis’ band but then decides that Frank is the better catch.

Motley in several different ways, Happy Endings catalogs Roos’ various preoccupations and private amusements. The director likes casting art-film types with sitcom veterans, although his enthusiasm for the likes of Kudrow (also featured in his The Opposite of Sex) and Arnold doesn’t pay off here. Because there are so many characters and they’re mostly caricatures, no great range is required. Coogan’s weasel-like Charley and Gyllenhaal’s, well, weasel-like Jude are the most striking, but the film doesn’t linger on any scene long enough for a wrong note to resonate. Roos cuts frequently between the various stories, intersects them periodically, includes lots of Calexico and Dirty Three, needles filmmaking truisms and institutions—notably the American Film Institute—and adds onscreen commentary whenever he has an aside he couldn’t work into the dialogue. The ensuing carnival isn’t profound—and at 130 minutes is decidedly long—but it’s seldom boring.

Roos has directed three films now, including the more earnest Bounce, and breeding and lying have emerged as his themes. He’s gay—“Who isn’t?” asks one of his characters—but very concerned with procreation. As he said at the time of The Opposite of Sex, “Sex matters, and each sex act has the potential of being life-changing.” After all the genetic hijinks, however, Happy Endings dispenses with love in a series of passionless epilogues.CP