actor-director John Cassavetes and his wife/muse Gena Rowlands would carve careers in the motion picture industry. Like another scion of the industry, Sophia Coppola, Zoe Cassavetes honed her skills as a filmmaker directing music videos, commercials, short films and TV projects. For her feature debut as director and writer, BROKEN ENGLISH, she has fashioned a semi-autobiographical movie about a thirty-something woman who finds love in an unexpected place.
Instead of writing a traditional romantic comedy, though, Cassavetes has tackled a storyline that owes much to her father's work -- a slice of life portrait complete equal doses of the humor and pathos. Parker Posey stars as Nora Wilder, a woman growing disenchanted with her single life and her job in guest relations at a trendy boutique hotel in Manhattan. Nora measures herself against her best friend Audrey (Drea de Matteo), a woman who seems to have it all -- a great husband (Tim Guinee), wealth, and social status, yet who is monstrously unhappy. It doesn't help that Nora's mom (Gena Rowlands) pressures her about settling down and giving her grandchildren.
BROKEN ENGLISH tracks Nora over the course of a few months as she engages in a few dating mishaps, including an encounter with a hotel guest, up-and-coming actor Nick Gable (Justin Theroux in one of the film's most realized performances) who treats the pursuit of Nora as an acting exercise, and a disastrous blind date with a family friend (Josh Hamilton, also quite good) who is still smarting over a recent breakup. Just as Nora is about to give up completely, she encounters Julien (Melvin Poupaud) at a party thrown by a co-worker.
Initially indifferent to Julien and his attentions, Nora soon becomes intrigued. Julien sees her home and stays the night, but sleeps on a chair. Gradually she succumbs to his charms and they spend several days together. With work commitments forcing him back to France, Julien invites Nora to come with him, but she reluctantly refuses -- and later regrets her decision.
At this point, the movie shifts gears a bit and Nora eventually decides to head to Paris to track down Julien, intent on discovering if he is indeed the "one." Audrey arranges for them to serve as couriers and they are both off for adventures in France. The trip allows Nora the opportunity to do some soul searching and reach a few conclusions.
BROKEN ENGLISH is an intriguing if not wholly successful feature. There's an awful lot in the movie that feels familiar and Cassavetes, despite her best efforts to inject something new into the genre, lacks the experience that might have elevated this beyond the mundane. Posey does a nice job in the lead role, but she doesn't really share any chemistry with Poupaud (who was so magnetic in TIME TO LEAVE). Indeed, Poupaud falls victim to the unfortunate trend that many European performers do: when he acts in English something is definitely lost in the translation. Together there is no heat or spark, so the audience's lacks rooting value for the couple to be together.
The large supporting cast is adequate, with Theroux and Hamilton scoring in their brief scenes. De Matteo does well with Audrey, but I could not get past the feeling that these women really weren't the close friends the script claimed. Sadly, Gena Rowlands was wasted in her role as Nora's harridan of a mother.
BROKEN ENGLISH isn't a complete washout and Cassavetes does show potential. I had the feeling that like her heroine, she was struggling to find her own voice. Maybe with future projects she will.
Rating: C+ MPAA Rating: PG-13 for some sexual content, brief drug use and language Running time: 96 mins.
Viewed at Magno Review One
L to R: Parker Posey as Nora Wilder and Melvil Poupaud as Julien in BROKEN ENGLISH Photo courtesy of Magnolia Pictures.