“Broken English” is a summer semi-indie that fails as a romantic comedy but scores as a female awakening story as it explores the wide-open but sometimes stymieing universe of the single urban woman. Freshness and flair on the part of neophyte writer-director Zoe Cassavetes and stratospheric acting from Parker Posey account for the ability of the film to offset its shortcomings with acuity and charm.
Posey (“Personal Velocity”), whose refusal to soften her edges has made her one of our most distinctive actors, demonstrates that quality splendidly in the role of Nora, an anxiety-plagued Manhattan hotel official who constantly engages in the search for love, though her heart isn’t in it.
Drinking too much and thinking too little, 30-something Nora lets the expectations of others, including her marriage-minded mother (played by Gena Rowlands, Cassavetes’ mother), guide her — a course that lands her at pathetic parties, which she attends just to be visible. But at one such affair, she meets a life-embracing Frenchman named Julien (Melvin Poupaud). A weekend fling feels like love.
After Julien returns to Paris, the action shifts to that city, where the usually unadventurous Nora, accompanied by bolder, unhappily married pal Audrey (Drea De Matteo), travels to find Julien. When the loss of his address and phone number renders this mission near-hopeless, she embarks on a self-discovery journey.
Enter, alas, the romantic-comedy formula, which, as delivered by Cassavetes, complete with a pat ending, lowers the film’s credibility. It doesn’t help, either, that no chemistry exists between Posey’s Nora and Poupaud’s Julien, who seems devised mostly to represent relaxed European living in contrast to New York stress.
Overall, however, the movie,which is light but rarely shallow, clicks as an observant, entertaining look at contemporary fast-lane women and their predicaments and mind-sets. The obstructed Nora personifies these elements with sting and complexity.
Working in a quirky-deadpan mode that seems all her own, Cassavetes sustains a winning tone. She captures the phoniness of singles-scene small talk. Her depiction of two of Nora’s disastrous dates is sizzlingly funny.
Posey, meanwhile, turns what might have been an unwatchable caricature into a terrific protagonist. On a comic level, Nora is a perfectly pitched depressive ditz. As a dramatic presence, she’s an affecting blend of self-defeat, sadness and buried worth. Her blossoming, handled with effective low-keyness by Cassavetes, is a kick to watch.
With such results, Cassavetes is on her way. Posey is pantheon bound.
Broken English ***
Starring Parker Posey, Melvin Poupaud, Drea De Matteo, Gena Rowlands
Written and directed by Zoe Cassavetes
Running time: 1 hour, 36 minutes