The break-up artist

Pub date September 14, 2010
SectionFilm Review

FILM Most countries crank out commercial features just as pandering as (if less expensively produced than) the majority of mainstream Hollywood product. Even sacrosanct art house supplier France manufactures plentiful dumb-and-dumber hits that attract little interest (unless it’s remake interest) beyond nations where Frog is spoken.

Still, their schlock is often better than our schlock. The new Heartbreaker is a star-driven romantic comedy that underlines how lame and formulaic Hollywood’s current endeavors in that genre almost invariably are. Not that it isn’t formulaic — but you don’t feel nose-led by a committee of script-coarsening hacks, and the usual escapist lifestyle pleasures (pretty people wearing really nice clothes in exotic or upscale locations) don’t come off as a product-placement parade.

The film immediately announces itself an escapist treat as six-packed Goran (Jean-Marie Paris) leers at a bikini’d fellow hard body across a Moroccan hotel pool. That reverie is interrupted by girlfriend Florence (Amandine Dewasmes), a plainer Jane who insists they actually see the country.

When he bails, she hitches a ride to nearby dunes with Doctors Without Borders type Pierre (Romain Duris). Several hours, some humanitarian aid and much mutual clickage later, Florence happily ditches her wandering-eye lout.

This is, actually, the last we see of Florence, Goran, or even Pierre. Because there is no "Pierre" — only Alex, star performer in a biz run with pragmatic sibling Mélanie (Julie Ferrier) and her genially vague husband Marc (François Damiens). They orchestrate breakups with maximum guile but also strict ethical rules ("We open their eyes, not their legs … We only step in if the woman is unhappy"), usually hired by families desperate to wean daughters from bad relationships with "jerks" like Goran.

An amusing montage of Alex essaying various roles — window washer, sushi chef, redeemable criminal — establishes this is an enterprise both elaborately thought-out and costly. Indeed, Alex and Co. are in debt, thanks to his theatrical perfectionism. Ergo they’ve no choice but to violate rules and accept a lucrative new assignment whose target seems far from unhappy.

For whatever reason, a "flower tycoon" (Jacques Frantz) whose fortunes may well have a shadier origin wants semi-estranged only child Juliette (Gallic pop star and Mrs. Johnny Depp Vanessa Paradis) courted from Brit Jonathan (Andrew Lincoln) whom she’s imminently scheduled to marry.

This is problematic. Juliette proves no pushover — defying Alex’s vain boast, "With preparation, no woman can resist me" — and is in mutual love with an utterly admirable fiancé. Posing as a bodyguard hired by dad to protect her, Alex’s flying-wedge act meets steep resistance.

There’s never any doubt where Heartbreaker is headed. Cocky Alex will fall hard, repent his professional Don Juan fakery, almost lose the game, then grovel sufficiently to pull a Graduate as scruffy charmer triumphs over dully respectable Mr. Right. What happens after the fade, when reality dawns? We probably don’t want to know.

Yet Heartbreaker earns that suspension of disbelief, arriving at a unabashedly melodramatic climax just as romantically intoxicating as it aims to be. Director Pascal Chaumeil’s first major feature (after a decade of TV work) is glamorous where appropriate — Monaco looks as high-end as Paradis in frocks evoking Hitchcock-era Princess Grace — and raffishly funny elsewhere. Duris (from several Cédric Klapish films and 2005’s The Beat That My Heart Skipped) seizes his star turn with perfectly judged panache. What can you say about a movie that exploits Wham!’s "Wake Me Up Before You Go-Go" as a recurrent in-joke without making the viewer’s stomach heave? Kudos, that’s what.

Heartbreaker isn’t great cinema. Yet it gives great escapist burger — In-N-Out, say, compared to the McDonald’s deep fry of gender-flipped similar Hollywood exercise Failure to Launch in 2006. Yeah it’s easy, but you won’t feel cheap the morning after.

HEARTBREAKER opens Fri/17 in Bay Area theaters.