Judge Brett Cullum is broken the English, yes?
Nora Wilder: I think I must be doing something horribly wrong, but I don't know what it is.
Of course you know the last name: Director Zoe Cassavetes is indeed the daughter of film legend John Cassavetes and actress Gena Rowlands. Is it any surprise one of her best friends is Sofia Coppola? This is Zoe's second directing effort following 2000's short film Men Make Women Crazy Theory, and it stars a good friend of Zoe's—actress (and official "queen of the indie film") Parker Posey (Party Girl). Could this be another Lost in Translation? Well, it doesn't have the Oscar buzz of that film. Yet it does compare favorably to Sophia's The Virgin Suicides for having a signature style, and it shows a ton of promise for the young filmmaker. Zoe's got some skills, and they are on full display here.
Facts of the Case
Nora Wilder (Parker Posey) is a thirty-something, single woman in Manhattan seeking love. She keeps falling for the wrong guys because they seem right, and finally meets the right man who seems wrong. Of course complications arise, because Mr. "Wrong Right" is from France (played by French heartthrob Melvil Poupaud). Nora has to make a decision on whether to stay in the not-so-comfortable bubble of New York City or take a chance on love in Paris.
Fans of Sex and the City will find themselves in familiar territory with this bittersweet journey of a thirty-something woman scouring artsy Manhattan for a partner. Broken English is not a complicated story, but is full of sophisticated people. What Zoe Cassavetes achieves with her film is a great study of several characters who reflect on their lives with a dry wit. New York and Paris appear as places of extreme loneliness and quiet desperation, becoming ironic geographic characters examined as intricately as the people. Broken English is a celebration of the duality of people and places and how this duality affects romance.
The main actress is cast to perfection. Broken English is the kind of film Parker Posey was born to do, and its nice to see her as the lead again in a comedic indie feature. What she uniquely offers as an actress is better served here than during the "Miss Tessmacher" role in Superman Returns or the comic-relief vampire of Blade: Trinity. Posey is the embodiment of winsome, capable of delivering a half smile that suggests she may laugh and burst into tears simultaneously. She's serenely beautiful, but there's an angry quality always threatening to come out. I never can figure out if she can turn the tragic funny, or if she can make the funny tragic. But in the end does it matter? She's a master of being a complicated girl, and she buoys this film by adding her unique stamp as much as the director. Nora Wilder is a joy to watch even when she's a completely heartbroken mess. It's a bravura performance right up there with her best even though this is a simple romantic comedy. Her very presence brings weight and smarts to the proceedings.
The rest of the cast is equally diverse and interesting. Drea De Matteo (The Sopranos) gets to be normal for the first time, and it's a revelation to see her without a thick accent or wild clothing. She portrays the best friend of Nora, and the film is as much about their relationship as it is concerned with the quest for love and happiness. She's beautifully reserved, and yet larger than life—which mirrors Parker's performance deftly. Melvil Poupaud would make anyone swoon as the love interest. Justin Theroux (Inland Empire) gets to play the signature charming asshole who puts Nora's world in a tailspin. Gena Rowlands (The Skeleton Key) appears as the sympathetic mother determined to help her daughter find a man. Cassavetes has assembled a dream cast for her first feature to write and direct, and they are amazing. Director Peter Bogdonavich even shows up in a cameo role as Nora's step father. The characters are amazingly well written and performed, and that is what makes Broken English a strong movie.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
It's a formula old as the movies, and there is very little that isn't predictable during Broken English other than the quirks of the characters. This could be an Audrey Hepburn vehicle from the '50s if you stripped it of the R rated elements. That's comforting in a way, and Zoe Cassavetes knows film well enough to adhere to the conventions of the immortal story of "boy meets girl," "boy loses girl," and "girl sets out to find boy." There is a part of me wishing it could be as unconventionally structured as Lost in Translation if only because the complex characters deserve more than "meet cutes" and convenient plot devices to stretch the story. Zoe is going to be a talent to watch, but Broken English represents the young director cutting her teeth on a tried and true pattern. It's amazing to see the depth the cast brings to the characters, but they don't do anything more complicated than any of a hundred romantic comedies out there.
The DVD for Broken English is straightforward, consisting of a solid transfer with a handful of extras. The picture and sound quality are fine if unremarkable, it looks and sounds like an independent film. The print is a touch grainy and dark in places, but well-composed color schemes pop nicely with few digital artifacts to get in the way. Extras are what you would expect too. There is a behind the scenes featurette mainly comprised of home movies shot by one of the producers that lasts about ten minutes. More interesting is a half hour of the television show Higher Definition which has interviews with Zoe Cassavetes, Gena Rowlands, Drea De Matteo, and Melvil Poupaud. Missing in action in any of this is Parker Posey. It's a real shame nobody interviewed her or put together an actress commentary, because Parker is one of the biggest reasons the film succeeds as well as it does. The best extra are the extensive deleted scenes which includes the performance of Griffin Dunne (After Hours) not scene theatrically.
Zoe Cassavetes has created a wry and witty film out of standard romantic comedy conventions. Broken English examines a group of complicated people going through what you expect. It's classic in form, but the performances and character interaction are refreshing. Fans of Parker Posey's will find it a rewarding experience as it's one of her best performances in a long time. The cast is what makes Broken English worth checking out. Drea De Matteo and Gena Rowlands are standouts in a film many women will find themselves identifying with. Cassavetes has written and directed something she knows will work, and it does. She joins the ranks of a generation of daughters of film masters we should watch.
Guilty of being a standard romantic comedy filled with complicated characters. It's wry, charming, and predictable.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: Magnolia Home Entertainment
• Behind the Scenes Featurette
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