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Just because a film winkingly acknowledges Hollywood predictability doesn’t mean it’s OK for it to fall into the traps set along its well-traveled path. Jet Lag, a romantic comedy by French writer-director Danièle Thompson in which two strangers meet cute at Charles de Gaulle, sounds promising even without the self-consciousness: It stars the lovely, melancholy Juliette Binoche and the grizzled yet gallant Jean Reno. (Before you start thinking that such fluff is a step down for Reno, one word: Rollerball.) But though the actors’ subtle performances raise Jet Lag above such similar American dreck as How to Lose a Guy in 10 Days and Maid in Manhattan, its formula is still stale.
Rose (Binoche) wishes that her own world were more like the cinematic one in which “whores marry millionaires” and laments that though Andy Warhol predicted everyone will get 15 minutes of fame, she’s always “deserved a whole day.” She has just left her abusive lover and is headed to Mexico to take a temp job as a beautician, but she’s hardly disconsolate. Decked out in a fur-collared purple coat, heels, thick-banged ‘do, and an armor of makeup, Binoche looks part Audrey Hepburn and part Katherine Harris, and she endows Rose with a certain likable softness even as the character yammers brassily on her cell phone.
Félix (Reno), meanwhile, is a gruff loner, a famous chef who’s a fellow cell-phone addict yet reticent and standoffish in person. His entanglement with Rose begins when she asks to borrow his phone after she accidentally flushes hers. Stalled by a combination of bad weather and transit strikes, Rose and Félix meet again and again, finally ending up in an airline-provided hotel room that Félix offers to share.
For most of the movie, Rose and Félix neither clash nor swoon. (Well, he does, from an overreliance on sedatives and blood-pressure medicationturns out he’s sensitive and vulnerable!) What Thompson’s script (co-written by her son, Christopher Thompson) has them do insteadand this makes the film’s slight 81 minutes feel like an eternityis politely put up with each other’s self-interest.
During the pivotal hotel scenes, these characters continue to seem attracted to each other only as a means of passing the time before becoming, briefly, completely hateful. She chatters; he brushes her off. He restrains his channel-surfing so she can cry during news footage of an old strike, confessing, “I love history!” (Turns out she’s sensitive, too, and well-educated.) But despite the script’s efforts to show how unlike their first impressions Rose and Félix really areefforts backed ineffectively by Eric Serra’s twinkly, fairy-dust musical cuesher actions ultimately confirm only her shallowness, and Félix’s his arrogance. And the 180 Rose pulls after a toxic dinner scene is about as compelling as the metaphor the filmmakers employ to convey her openness: a newfound lack of makeup.
To be fair, Reno is awfully adept at sweeping Binoche into a dipped embrace and growling sweet nothings. (Though his subsequent voice-mail pronouncement is less effective: “I’m totally in love with you!”) And there are a few moments that blindsidea well-framed shot of a desolate airport road, a delicately brokenhearted look from Reno or Binoche as one watches the other walk away. But these two part once too often, and you’ll soon realize they’ve really got nowhere to go at all.
Whereas Rose would never pin her heart to her well-tailored sleeve, Respiro’s Grazia would hurl a plate as soon as look at you. A loving wife and young mother of three, the nonspecifically screwy Grazia is described as a woman who’s always “either too happy or too sad.” She’s mistakenly established as the film’s life force, a breath of freshness on the allegedly stultifying Mediterranean island of Lampedusa.
As drawn by Italian writer-director Emanuele Crialese, however, this portrait of a misunderstood madwoman is a little thin. Grazia (Valeria Golino) is introduced lounging languidly in a chair outside her home, dreamily singing along to the radio with her youngest son, Filippo (Filippo Pucillo), before being flung to the ground and tickled by her Oedipal preteen, Pasquale (Francesco Casisa). She then takes to her bed while her oldest, the blossoming Marinella (Veronica D’Agostino), makes the boys dinner.
Grazia swings between playful and plain ol’ crazy for the rest of the film, either acting more childish than her kids or throwing seemingly unprovoked fits that require community-administered shots to soothe. Meanwhile, Crialese’s other characters offer much more nuance: Grazia’s husband, Pietro (Vincenzo Amato), is shown as a tortured breadwinner who alternates between chastising his irresponsible wife and caressing her troubled brow. Pasquale is a piss ‘n’ vinegar troublemaker who nonetheless takes care of Mom when she runs away after the family insists she seek treatment in Milan. And as played by curly-haired newcomer Pucillo, Filippo is a fist-pumping old man in a tiny package, spewing dramatically inflected Italian with venom whether he’s feeling cheated by a seaside toy vendor or outraged by his sister’s interest in a local cop who pulls over the overloaded family scooter (“Goddamn cop!
You don’t scare me with your gun!”).
Golina, too, is better than Crialese’s unimaginative material. Her clear eyes and tangle of hair help give Grazia the intended ethereal quality, and the warmth she radiates is often the only humanizing aspect to her stock character. Despite the story’s overall lack of substance, watching Respiro actually feels like a mini vacation: The sun-soaked island is a vision through the lens of cinematographer Fabio Zamarion, its weather-beaten stone structures a vibrant contrast to the blue-green sea. If Respiro’s world is one in which everyone’s role is clearly defined, its beauty makes it tolerable. CP