Judge Brendan Babish prefers Polish honeys.
An unexpected follow-up to the international sensation L'Auberge Espagnole
In 2001, French filmmaker Cedric Klapisch's L'Auberge Espagnole was a smash hit throughout Europe. The movie, sort of a fictionalized The Real World, followed a gaggle of attractive European grad students sharing a flat in Barcelona for a year. While Russian Dolls is a sequel to L'Augberge Espangnole, that film was ostensibly an ensemble piece, while this focuses almost entirely a single character (Romain Duris, The Beat That My Heart Skipped) and his quixotic search for love at the age of 30.
Facts of the Case
Xavier is an ambitious young Parisian who has just turned 30 and finds himself still single and struggling in his pursuit of a professional writing career. While composing a letter to a friend he looks back on the previous year's misadventures, which include degrading writing assignments and lots of vacuous sex. That is, until he reconnects with the comely Wendy (Kelly Reilly, Mrs. Henderson Presents), a previous flat mate of his in L'Auberge Espagnole. Xavier's relationship with Wendy feels like true love, but will it be strong enough to resist the come-ons of a beautiful and bored supermodel?
About an hour and a half into Russian Dolls (which unwisely runs well over two hours) I realized how similar this film was to Warren Beatty's classic 1975 film Shampoo. Both films feature narcissistic men (Xavier in Russian Dolls, Beatty's George Roundy in Shampoo) who are struggling to advance their careers. Both of these men are single and effortlessly manage to sleep with a bevy of beautiful women in their ostensible search for love. And both films hinge on these men's ability to remain faithful once they finally find a woman worth committing to. Ultimately, Russian Dolls pales in comparison to Shampoo, largely due to Duris's uninspired performance and a plot that stretches the limit of credulity.
I should note that neither of these plots are very original; a young man's search for love is probably one of the most popular story templates in Hollywood—Zach Braff seems intent on turning it into a career. However, what differentiates Russian Dolls and Shampoo from many of their contemporaries is the decision to make the protagonist a lothario. This not only turns the lead into a cad but may also cause the audience to doubt the plausibility of the story. Shampoo manages to sidestep this by employing Beatty's impossible good looks and irrepressible charm. We believe that George Roundy could be sleeping with half the women in Hollywood (as Beatty did in real life), and yet we somehow don't really hold it against him. In Russian Dolls, Xavier sleeps with several gorgeous women (including an international supermodel), and Duris is unable to supply the charm and magnetism the role requires.
This was surprising because Duris gave such an electric performance last year in the excellent The Beat That My Heart Skipped. Duris definitely has the looks and charisma to play a likeable ladykiller, but for some reason comes off like a bumbling, Parisian Woody Allen type with no steady income and no place of residence. Despite this he has one of the most adorable women on the planet—Audrey Tautou (Amélie)—throwing herself at him for a night of no-strings attached sex. not since Dream On was cancelled have I seen a series of more unlikely sexual situations than in Russian Dolls. However, Dream On was a comedy that rarely employed drama or pathos, while this film—judging by the several overwrought music cues—wants to be taken seriously.
And yet, on some levels the film does work. Klapisch employs several absurdist flights of fancy that effectively liven up a story that is rather tired and an ending that is a total cop out. These include a couple running naked through the streets of Paris, or Xavier imagining a doppelganger playing the flute whenever he finds himself embellishing his writing experience. Additionally, the supporting cast, largely populated by holdovers from L'Auberge Espagnole, have a natural and appealing report. This gives uninspiring material an air of authenticity that is difficult to manufacture on a sound stage. Ultimately, Russian Dolls has several inspiring moments, and a commendable array of characters, but revolves around a plot that's got plenty of trimmings, but not enough meat.
Genius Products has put together a pretty lackluster DVD for Russian Dolls. The picture and sound are adequate, but still sub par for what I assume is a (relatively) big-budgeted European movie. Additionally, the only extra is a slapdash featurette that does not include interviews, but is merely a montage of cast members conferring with the film's actors. It has the look of something that was thrown together overnight. Feel free to skip it.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
In the spirit of full disclosure, I should admit that I have not seen L'Auberge Espagnole, so Russian Dolls was my first exposure to many of these characters who are beloved by many. While this probably had a negligible effect on my opinion of the movie itself, I was immediately put off by the loutish William (Kevin Bishop), an Englishman who is first shown running through the streets of Paris, accosting passerby by yelling "Voulez-vouz couche avec moi?" like a drunk frat boy. Such an obnoxious introduction to this character later undermines the second half of the movie, which contains William's sober tale of falling in love with a Russian dancer. Perhaps fans of L'Auberge Espagnole—who are already familiar with most of the cast of Russian Dolls—will overlook this behavior and attain a fuller appreciation of the film.
If you're a semi-employed man in your 30s, and are currently struggling to decide between the supermodel and a bevy of just plain attractive women, this is the film for you. If you're just looking for a romantic comedy and a few laughs, you could do worse, but you could also do a lot better.
If you haven't noticed, I don't take kindly to young hotshots who moan about how meaningless sex with incredibly beautiful women is so unfulfilling. Guilty.
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• "The Making of Russian Dolls" featurette
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